The Dogma of Advertising & Consumerism: What freedom are we calling for? P.4/5

As the call for freedom in the Middle-East cements itself into Western culture, some of us continue to question the extent to which a culture so consumed in consumerism is able to make such a call. This is considered in light of major and more nuanced social and psychological problems that arise from such ‘freedoms.’ In what follows I wish to highlight a few of these disturbances, which are often overlooked.

It’s not clear how many advertisements we are exposed to every day. Taking into account the average hours of TV viewing, radio listening, newspapers/magazine reading, internet surfing, public street and transport use; common estimates range from around 250 per day on the conservative side, to 3000 and above. Regardless of which is more accurate, there’s no doubt that being exposed to adverts is an extremely significantly common and almost necessary part of human experience in the modern world.

As well as showing us products, adverts also present us with values, ideals and social standards. They draw upon major personal themes such as beauty, happiness, love, companionship, sex, and self-image, in a positive but unrealistic light to promote their product. As a consequence, these adverts are potentially shaping us towards mental states, which are in fact, quite inhibiting, insecure, and unhealthy.

A common psychological principle used by advertisers is that repetition constitutes mental conditioning. Studies show that the more something is repeated to you, the more you will believe it. So whether it’s “I’m lovin’ it”, “Have a break, have a `Kit-Kat”, or “Washing machines live longer with Calgon”, the mere repetition of these messages is able to motivate potential buyers and construct certain ideas in their minds with added cognitive and emotional associations.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with such methods. Psychotherapy typically uses the brain’s ability to re-condition its associations to heal people and make their lives more fulfilling. This, however, is done with both consent and good clinical intention. Advertising is a different story altogether. A company’s main purpose is to sell a product and make money, even if that means falsely creating insecurities in people and offering their product as a solution.

The link between psychology and consumerism was expanded on in the early 20th century, when Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, used Freud’s ideas regarding primitive hidden sexual and aggressive forces to show corporations how to link purchasable products to unconscious desires. As a result, the insatiable fantasy and anticipation of buying a product became more pleasurable than actually possessing it. This would ensure that people would keep buying irrationally, giving rise to a consumer culture.

Bernays, who worked closely with numerous US presidents and large corporations, was one of the first to use psychological methods such as celebrity association, product marketing in films, and to link products to male or female power. In his book Propaganda (later Public Relations) he causally explains how, in many instances throughout our daily lives, “we imagine ourselves free agents”, but are “ruled by dictators exercising great power”. “A man buying a suit of clothes” he explains, “imagines that he is choosing, according to his taste and his personality, the kind of garment which he prefers. In reality, he may be obeying the orders of an anonymous gentleman tailor in London.” Bernays then explains how the gentleman tailor in London is part of a wider network utilising the psychological methods listed above. Thus, even our consumer choices are largely an illusion of freedom, as clarified by the official “Father of Public Relations” himself.

The values being presented to a nation through major advertising come in all shapes and sizes. Constant images of happy, smiling, healthy people with buyable products both insists on a materialistic existence, and promotes the idea that if you want fulfilment, you need to buy things. As a result, our worth is valued more and more by what we own as opposed to what we do, or who we are. Self-gratification is also excessively promoted by the advertising culture, encouraging a focus on our own immediate desires as opposed to our relations with others. Whenever displayed, family and friendship ties are seen as outlets for gift giving, while intimate and traditional ‘special occasions’ have been mutilated into wholesale consumer events. Not much is offered for the integrity of the self. Morally reflective messages are usually only found in charity ads, which, although might be sincere, share the principal goal of encouraging some partition with your finances. Thus, your worth still depends on what you can spend.

Sexualization and Body Dissatisfaction

An increasingly concerning issue regarding images in advertising is the consistent connection between women, sex, desire, beauty, thinness, and happiness. This collection of associations is one of the most oft-repeated and overtly used advertising methods that modern society is exposed to multiple times a day. It’s now so commonly used that we hardly even notice it.

The American Psychological Association defines ‘sexualization’ as: “when a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics.” Sexual objectification shares a similar definition, and is theoretically accentuated in a consumer-advertising context, where, not only is the individual sexually objectified in the way the body is presented, but also in the fact that they are associated with a purchasable object. Moreover, studies have confirmed that images which sexually objectify women have led to them being seen as “less human”, lacking “mind” and morality, and has caused men to grow indifferent to women’s experience of pain.

The phenomenon of ‘body dissatisfaction’ is defined as the perceived difference between one’s own body image and the ideal body image established and maintained by commercial media. Countless psychological studies show that this ‘dissatisfaction’ is a precursor to both eating disorders and psychological disorders such as depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, shame, and even self-disgust. What permanently cements these disorders into Western culture is that the gap between the reality and the ideal can never actually be closed since the beauty standard set by popular culture is impossible to attain. It has been argued that the female body-type typically portrayed in adverts is genetically true to some 5% of the female population, while photoshopped images and the portrayal of eternal youth further distances the ideal into an ever-higher fantasy. Insecurities are moreover ignited by evidence showing that men who are exposed to “media-perfect” beautiful women tend to view real life average females as significantly less attractive. This would theoretically include their own partners.

Although men are not exempt from an increased sexualisation in advertising, it is still nowhere near as prevalent as the sexualisation of women. Moreover, due to both the dissimilar perceived ideals and physiological differences of each gender, it is highly unlikely that men will ever be affected in the same way, despite the rise of the metrosexual man. A longitudinal study shows that when girls reach puberty, natural increase in body mass at this age distances them from the thin ideal, significantly increasing the chance of psychological and eating disorders. Boys, on the other hand, tend to grow closer to their bulkier ideal at puberty and thus show no increase in body dissatisfaction during adolescence. The gender bias is further confirmed with national stats from the UK and US showing that around 90% of cosmetic procedures are carried out on women, with breast implants being the most common, and vaginal modification being one of the fastest growing.

Most critical to the concept of freedom is how the beauty standard is imposed upon children, especially young girls. As one psychologist puts it: “the current aesthetic model for women, characterised by skinniness, is internalised early on, before the age of 10, and remains throughout adolescence.” Since children are below the age of responsible choice, freedom is entirely undercut, directing them to a series of potentially life long social and personal disorders and harms. Although a causal link has not been confirmed, this may well contribute towards explaining the belief that women are at least twice as likely to suffer from depression than men.

Of course, for the majority of major towns and cities in the Middle East, the caution is too late. The presence of multi-national corporations and the electronic mediums through which they advertise, have long been a part of Arab urban culture. “Thin and sexy” images of women in public are indeed rising, and Arab manufactures are quick to create equivalent products, which are no doubt having the same effects on their own children as they are on children in the West (Fulla is just as abnormally thin as Barbie). But in many cases, it’s not to the same degree. Strict values of individualism haven’t completely taken over the culture in the Middle East and it’s fair to say that some inhabited areas are completely untouched by commercialism. Traditional values of selfless hospitality, genuine respect for elders, and community spirit, still strongly subsist in non-consumerist communities scattered throughout non-Western lands. The spreading of modern Western values of freedom – of which consumer choice and abundant advertising are integral parts – tends to inverse these values producing opposite social effects.

In conclusion, meaning is derived from our associations. And advertisers are proving incredibly successful at shaping these associations for the sake of commercial and financial interests. While they may not always anticipate the negative effects, there’s more than enough evidence to suggest that the spread of consumer culture, along with its accompanying adverts, promotes far more social problems and insecurities than it does freedoms.

India Part 4: The Night Break-Out

The rumors, idle chatting, and gossip were steadily seeping more and more into the camps existence. I wanted to leave. It was after dinner, which is promptly served at 7.00pm every night without fail. Chapati (bread) rice and lentils are served most commonly. I was itching to split. I wasn’t thinking of doing anything too extreme: just wonder out into the darkness alone for 20mins and come back.

Equipped with only my incredibly expensive and powerful tactical torch and a toothbrush, I made an announcement to some of my companions at the camp at dinner. “You’re gonna what!?”.. “I’m gonna wonder out of camp, get lost, and try to find my way back.” The large part of me was joking but a deeper part of me was serious. They found the thought funny, and didn’t appear to take me seriously.

Now, there is a Night Watchman here in charge of making sure no one strays out of camp after hours. He is of average build, incredibly dark skinned, wears shabby, dusty clothes and sports a long, twisty and unkempt mustache. He looks quite crazy and scary. He roams the outskirts of the camp alone at night with an old but powerful heavy-duty torch and speaks no word of English. There is a single dirt road that leads away from camp to concrete paths in the distance. That’s where I was headed. As I exited the main, open gate of the camp, I realised why they don’t bother closing it. There’s nothing outside but dry darkness. It would take hours and hours before you reached anything by foot. I didn’t want to attract attention to myself near the camp so I decided to go without lighting my torch until I was far enough away. I couldn’t see anything bar two shades of black; one darker – for ground, all the way into the distance; and a lighter black for the sky. However, the sky was filled with stars. I’d never seen so many. Path, poo and shrubs were all indistinguishable in the darkness. As I made my way around the outside of the camp’s barbed wire to break off onto the path, I heard a voice from the inside of the barbed wire. A torch beam shone out onto the sandy ground in front of me from the camp and I stopped dead in my tracks. Soon enough, the torch was shone directly into my face. It was the Night Watchman. He appeared to be talking, but not to me. He was actually on his mobile. Some “break out” – a minute in and I’m caught. But I figured, well, he’s seen me now – that’s probably another warning, I may as well just keep going – since he can only give me one warning for the single incident. And so I did. I compared it to getting a parking fine on your car – you may as well just leave your car there for as long as you want since the damage is done, right?

So the 20minute plan went out the window and I began to walk out onto a barely visible path until the camp was completely out of site. I was in total isolation. At this point, I switched on my torch and proceeded with some light. I had mentioned in my second email that from the camp, the horizon was scattered with large, isolated wind turbines (500m in height approx). In the distance at night, they were marked by tiny flashing red lights. As I looked to my left, I noticed that one of them seemed about an hours walk away. And so, I left the path I was on and trekked towards it across dry, thorny ground with my torch. It was uncomfortable and long, but well worth it. During certain points through the shrubs and sand, I would pan my torch across the ground like a moving stage spotlight. In the motion of doing this, I would see what appeared to be small birds that would ascend from the shrubs into the stars – kinda like a Mexican wave. It was quite spectacular. As I approached the foot of the gigantic wind turbine I felt like I’d just completed some sort of Pilgrimage. I was incredibly happy at this point. The deep, brooding sound of its turning blades made me think it was other-worldly. The abstract noise flooded the area. There was an unmanned concrete hut by the iron legs of the wind turbine with a roof light, which meant that the small area was lit up enough so I could put my torch away. I spotted a metal ladder that went up one of the mechanical structure’s giant legs and began to climb it without a second thought. This was a really difficult task and at that point I couldn’t think why. Every step felt like a pull-up. I got up about 3 story’s worth, which was about 5% of its height and climbed back down tired and aching. As I stood a good dozen meters away from its base to look at it, I was reminded of the animated film “The Iron Giant”; it felt like I was standing before a huge mechanical foe. Now as you may have supposed already, these emails are pretty much entirely uncensored, so please be easy on me for the following. You know my incredibly powerful torch? Well it’s so strong, that in the desert, with all the dust flying around, the light beam projected from it looks like a piercing light saber that extends strongly into the sky – literally. I drew my torch and started to beat head of the wind turbine 500 meters high. I thrashed at it from its sides, it’s front, twisting and blocking imaginary attacks from its deeply ominous sounding blades, with my own vocal buzzing sound effects. I was truly in a world of my own. I also thought that it would look pretty cool from camp, since if you can see the red lights at the head of the wind turbines, you could definitely see my torch.

After battling, reality kicked in. I had no idea where I was or how to get back, and I had no money or card. I didn’t even know what direction I had come from. I tried to climb the ladder once again to see if I could spot the camp, but there was nothing. Electricity cuts out an hour or so after lunch, so the camp would be in utter darkness. I figured I might have to sleep rough. At the very thought of sleeping under the turbine for the night, I heard distorted music fading in from the distance. It was an isolated tok tok (three-wheel small, cheap cab) passing by on an invisible road a good few hundred meters away. I shouted like a maniac and shone my torch at the vehicle trying to grab the driver’s attention. I ran across more thorny ground back into the utter darkness. I continued to scream and flash my torch for attention, but the tok tok beeped in joyful fashion and continued out of site. I figured I would make my way to the road it was on and hope another would pass by soon. Once I’d reached the concrete path, I begun to wait. Nothing and no one came by. It was totally dead and silent. The only thing that moved was the odd shooting star above me. I begun to make what I thought were SOS signals with my torch in the sky hoping that some volunteers from camp would see it, inform staff, and come to my rescue. I had tried so hard to keep my escape a secret from staff but now I really wanted them to just come and get me. I was ready to surrender and face the consequences. I shone the torch in the sky on and off for 45minutes. My situation was getting quite desperate. I made a prayer: “Please send a vehicle… it’s been fun but I just want to get back to camp now.” I quickly stared into each direction of the road expecting a tok tok to miraculously appear. But there was nothing.

Further time passed and I sat on the road waiting for anything to happen. I didn’t want to start walking again because there was nothing to be seen in any direction and I feared I would accidentally shift further away from camp. I soon felt sleepy and lay down on my back in the middle of the road. I figured if a tok tok did come, the driver would see me sleeping and help me. As I lay down, I was able to appreciate the star filled sky properly in still silence, for the first time. My eyes began to close and I was just about to fall asleep, when I was disturbed by a tapping noise about 100m down the road above my head. I sat up, looked behind me, but couldn’t make anything out in the blackness bar a weak torch slowly and steadily making it’s way towards me. I could have blinded whoever or whatever was approaching with my torch light (it’s actually designed as a weapon in this respect) but I felt it’d be rude to do that. So I stood up and shone my torch up into the sky and waved it around. I cautiously shouted out the Indian greeting: “Namastay!” My tone was very much on-guard. The like was responded. I then shot my torch at the floor in front of the on-comers to bounce light, revealing two disheveled male farmers who must have been walking home. I quickly switched on my signature Indian accent and gestured with my hands: “I lost… me wolunteer” (Indians can’t pronounce v’s). They looked at me clueless. “I want to go camp… camp, woluteer”. They looked at each other and shared a few Hindi words and stared back at me blankly. I continued: “I frrom England”. Something clicked with them: “England!?”.. “Yes!” I replied. The man then started pointing out into the direction they had come from. The other man took his tapping stick and drew a map in the sand beside the road. He ran his stick across the recommended route drawing a line that indicated straight for ages, then right for ages. I thanked them and moved on.

After walking straight in total isolation for some time, taking the right would mean departing from the concrete road back on to sand paths. I wasn’t even sure if they knew where I wanted to go, but I followed the advice. As fate would have it, about 150m into the sand path, a tok tok began to race across the road that I was just on for well over an hour. The inconvenience was remarkably precise. I turned around, shouted and screamed and tried to blind the driver with my torch, but again, the vehicle sped off. I couldn’t believe it. But at the same time, I felt that this “unluckiness” seemed a bit organised. I must have been on the right path. I continued to follow the direction that the farmers had advised and sure enough made it back to camp within a short space of time.

The reaction from the camp for my safety was quite touching. JJ thought the ordeal was cool, and was reassuring the girls that I would make it back safe. The boys were generally excited by it. Many of the girls were upset/worried and some even refused to speak to me for the rest of the night. Though the next morning they expressed their emotional relief. It turns out that some of the camp members did see my torch light in the distance but didn’t recognise it as a cry for help; and the reason why it was so hard to climb the wind turbine ladder was because I was climbing it on the inside of its gentle incline and not on it’s proper side. Everyone thought I was absolutely insane for choosing to sleep in the middle of the road as a rescue plan, and now that I think of it – I guess it was kinda reckless. Fortunately, news of the situation never seemed to reach the executives and so I was never issued another warning. I guess the Night Watchmen decided to let it go. It’s strange, since had he not caught me in the beginning I really would not have gone as far out as I did.

 I’ll be sending a more general update soon.

Attitudes to Disability: Islam, the West and the Middle East

Prophetic Attitude to Disability

Not a great deal of information can be found in the life of the Prophet Muhammed or in the Qur’an regarding the issue of disability. But like many other issues within the Islamic tradition, a lot can be drawn from a single prophetic example. With this I have in mind the incident where a blind man asked if he could be exempt from the general obligation of attending congregational prayer at the mosque, and pray at home instead due to his disability. Now, given the endless examples of the Prophet’s leniency, gentleness, and patience with all members of his community – especially towards the old, sick, and the needy, one would reasonably expect that the Prophet would have permitted the exemption. However, the tradition goes on to tell us that the Prophet turned down the blind man’s request and encouraged him to attend like everyone else. To some, this may seem a little harsh, but a little insight into social disability theory offers an alternative understanding.

According to sociologist Victor Finkelstein (1980), western attitudes to disability have shifted through three major phases over time. The first phase is said to have existed prior to the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, where those with disabilities were neither segregated from society nor viewed as socially incapable. Instead, they were part of a lower social class along with paupers and the mentally ill who took on the ‘profession’ of begging. Finkelstein claims that negative attitudes towards such people with disabilities were not exclusive to them. Rather, they were seen to be as much to blame for not working as able-bodied poor people due to their own sins, laziness, or the sins of their parents. It was only when society began to distinguish between the able-bodied poor on the one hand, and individuals with disabilities on the other that attitudes between them became distinct. This marks the beginning of phase two – the institutional phase. With the growth of medical institutions and asylums in the 19th century, more and more emphasis was put on ‘caring’ for people with disabilities. What followed was a long and continuous process of physically segregating such people into asylums and special care, removing them from general social engagement and hiding them from the eyes of the public. A new passive identity of ‘otherness’ was thus being constructed for them, largely characterised by weakness and dependence. This paved the way for what disability theorist Mike Oliver has called the ‘personal tragedy theory of disability’ (Oliver 1990). The rise and emphasis of hospital environments facilitated the rapid increase in the number of nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, social workers, counsellors, asylums, and charitable homes which, despite their apparent noble intent, only ensured the success of further segregating people with disabilities from society, and contributed heavily to their stigmatisation as alienated ‘objects of research and help’.

This was followed by phase three and the advent of the revolutionary ‘social model’ of disability in the mid-late 20th century, which was an approach that sought to both improve the way in which we perceive people with disabilities and to reintegrate them back into society. The new model, as an alternative to the previously prominent ‘medical model’ of disability, sees the disabling factor no longer in the individual person, but in the environment’s inability to accommodate them. What needed addressing were structural and technological issues which led to grand investments into the installation of ramps, lifts, automatic doors, better lighting in buildings, wider corridors, beeping signals at pedestrian crossings, audio announcements on public transport, computer aiding technology, and so on across the entire nation. This endeavour, which continues today, aims to reduce the phenomenon of disability as much as possible.

The negative effects of phase two – the institutional phase, however, are still with us. Studies continue to show that disability still exists as a form of social oppression and social exclusion (Oliver & Barnes 1998, Beart et al. 2005). Prejudiced assumptions remain deeply ingrained both in our common perceptions towards people with disabilities, as well as in our media portrayals of them, which are incredibly unflattering (Barnes 1992, Duncan 2002). And all this has been shown to contribute to their continuing lack of self-esteem and psychological distress (Abraham et al. 2002, Paterson 2007). Despite the positive goals of the social model, then, stigmatisation towards people with disabilities as incapable victims of tragedy has been stubbornly rigid in our minds since their construction in the institutional phase.

Coming back to the story about the Prophet, then; by encouraging the blind man to attend the daily congregational prayers – a rich and frequent activity of social cohesion – the Prophet sought to maintain integration amongst all members of the community. To be physically present and integrated denies the possibility of constructed alienation and otherness. Integration also reduces the scope of stigmatisation, insofar as the gap between ‘virtual’ and ‘actual’ social identity is kept to a minimum (Goffman 1969). Furthermore, the Prophet was known to give prominent roles and tasks to people with disabilities in order to further consolidate their involvement in society. Ultimately, the Prophet as ruler and statesman appeared to guide his community in a way which would by-pass the institutional phase of disability outlined by Finkelstein.

There are, of course, many other influences to be considered here, such as the phenomenon of ‘labelling’ in western medical institutions, as well as western society’s emphasis on and glorification of the ‘ideal’ body, which have also fuelled the stigmatisation of people with disabilities in our society – both of which are strongly countered in the Islamic tradition. What is being highlighted here, however, is that the primary solution for negative attitudes towards disability, should have been, and should always be, integration.

Attitudes in the Middle-East

So to what extent do Middle-Eastern Muslim countries follow the integrative attitude of the Prophet with regards to disability? Not very much at all, according to one visually impaired individual who grew up in Bahrain but has lived in the UK for the last 10 years. Yahye, a recent Masters graduate from the University of Westminster and freelance worker for disability integration social enterprise ‘Dialogue in the Dark’ tells me that despite the stigmatisation towards people with disabilities in the west, the implementation of the social model of disability in the UK is ‘head and shoulders’ above other countries in integrating people with disabilities back into society. It would seem that for the large part, the Middle-East is stuck in the institutional phase in which much money is spent on facilities for people with disabilities, but these usually take the form of exclusive ‘care institutes’ hidden from the eyes of the general public. Opportunities for people with disabilities are also incredibly narrow in the Middle East, resulting in degree graduates – of any subject – being destined to work in call centres, if they are fortunate enough to be employed for work at all. This has led many potential students with disabilities to not bother with university in the first place.

The ‘shame’ attached to families with disabled children is also more striking than it is in the west due to the comparative lack of social emphasis on disability equality and discrimination rights. People with disabilities often feel discouraged to even leave their homes due to such judgmental attitudes in society, as well as the lack of available practical assistance to travel. The sight of a disabled person walking or travelling alone is generally interpreted as such an individual being neglected by his or her family. For this reason, they are usually always accompanied by a family member or carer. The emphasis on hospitality and helpfulness typical to Muslim countries doesn’t help the situation either. Such well-meaning traits often only fuel patronising attitudes, unwanted assistance, and deny a disabled person’s independence. In fact, Yahye tells me that he feels much more dignified in the UK where they seem to have accomplished the right balance of allowing a person with disabilities to live and function independently, while at the same time, offering useful individual assistance only when required.

It should come as no surprise that yet another social failure in Muslim lands correlates with the departure from the Prophet’s example on the respective issue. So while the west continues to improve its policies to eliminate disability inequality and increase integration after its previous mistakes, the Middle-East still funds and builds institutes of exclusive care – exacerbating social stigma, and remain largely estranged to the social model of disability. They clearly have a very long way to go.

Abraham, C., Gregory, N., Wolf, L. & Pemberton, R. (2002). Self-esteem, stigma and community participation amongst people with learning difficulties living in the community, Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 12, 430-443
Barnes, C. (1992) Disabling imagery and the Media, an Exploration of the Principles for Media Representations of Disabled People, Halifax: Ryburn Publishing
Beart, S., Hardy, G. & Buchan, L. (2005). How people with intellectual disabilities view their social identity: A review of the literature. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 18, 47-56
Duncan, B. (2002) Portrayal of Disability in Recent Films: Notes, Disability World: 09 June 2002
Finkelstein, V. (1980) Attitudes and Disabled People, New York: World Rehabilitation Fund
Goffman, E. (1963) Stigma: Notes on the management of a spoiled identity, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Oliver, M. & Barnes, C. (1998) Disabled People and Social Policy: From Exclusion to Inclusion, London: Longman
Paterson, L. (2007) Stigma, social comparison and psychological distress in adults with a learning disability, The University of Edinburgh, Doctorate Thesis

India Part 3: Teaching and Camp Life

So day 1 with teaching started and I was quite clueless as to how to go about it. I began to question the founding intentions of Platform2: Why, for example, are we being made to teach these village kids English – that is, their ABC’s, when in all liklihood, they will work manual jobs in and around the village all their lives, and die – in and around the village – having no contact with tourists or ever need such language skills. “But if you get just one kid educated enough to move to Jaipur (the big city), and they work there, then they’ve made it, and you’ve made a difference.” These justifications from my fellow volunteers seemed quite naive and superficial. However, I wasn’t going to try and ideologically uproot this vast humanitarian project within which I am quite insignificant.

I figured that I would use my Muslim identity for teaching purposes – afterall, this is why they singled me out for the Muslim village. In particular, I was thinking of the wash for prayer since some kids are quite dirty. It’s common for the young ones especially to be half naked (this might be a potty training technique?); snot is usually encrusted on their faces on which flies settle without protest from their hosts. I still, for the life of me, can’t understand how the kids don’t seem to realise that three flies are crawling all around their eyelids. The older girls (8-10) dress very colourfully and are always enthusiastic to see us. Amida, the day care centre’s teacher who moves around on her arms due to her disability, is always dressed in a bright yellow modest Indian style dress with plaited hair. She’s 25 but looks 35 and is very thin. On my first day I performed the afternoon prayer and some boys – who should have been at the school – where quite eager to join . A couple of the girls did too. We all went outside in the dry sun and I called for some water to be fetched from the well (haha, I never thought I would ever say that). All 15 kids or so gathered around in their colourful dresses to watch me teach one of the boys how to do the wash for prayer. It seemed they had only seen their fathers and uncles do it but had never done it themselves. I went through the process with about 3 or 4 of the schoolboys. Some of the girls learnt it and poured water for themselves separately. We all then went back into the empty (but again, colourful) room where we prayed. This was a nice experience though it was a one off since the boys went back to school for the remainder of the week and the girls seemed too shy to do it on their own.

In terms of teaching English, I decided to take a little initiative and offer to teach Amida, the day care centre’s teacher, one on one, while my teaching buddies, Chloe and Amy teach and play with the kids. I just figure that Amida would learn faster and if I could spend everyday teaching her English, she could at least continue to teach the kids after we’re gone. She just about knows her ABC so it’s pretty much starting from scratch.

So we teach in the morning and do practical work in the afternoon. Our recent practical work consisted of going into a dirty well and emptying it. This literally meant climbing down inside a rectangular room underground, repeatedly filling up buckets of water and sending them up by rope. Only 3 of us went into the well, myself and two other girls. It was dark so we couldn’t see much if we weren’t standing beneath the well’s trap door above. The water was about calf-height and filthy. Our Indian supervisor had climbed down as well and shone a torch light against the back wall of the well to reveal at least 500 frogs on a dry inclined part of the floor that wasn’t immersed in water. It looked like something out of the Old Testament. We had to clear them out too. We literally picked them up with our bare hands, and threw about 30-50 of them into a bucket at a time. There was plenty of screaming and shouting, me included.

Camp life takes up 70% of our waking time. A lot of time wasted in my opinion. I’ve grown quite popular throughout the camp as I continue to be as helpful as I can. Some of the girls have called me “Jesus” or “a shepherd” because I always have a group of people around me. But it’s true. If I sit somewhere, a group forms quite rapidly. (This is ironic because I’m probably the only person who wants to be alone.) My slightly antagonising strong Christian friend has been quoted to have said “Why does Zee get so much respect, he’s not even speaking the truth”. Not sure what to say about that.

Having a “bedtime” at 11pm is proving quite good for me. I’m beginning to think that one of the keys to organising your life is organising your sleep. I wake up everyday at 6am without fail for morning prayer. At this time everyone is asleep so I head on out into the dry outskirts of the camp to pray. Every other morning after prayer I go for a run around the camp with a tall, slim blonde girl called Megan. She has claimed that she likes the way I think and is one of few girls here who does not seem to engage in gossip. I’m still big in the music scene and have somehow found myself as singer in the camps only band, “The Desert Boys” (I didn’t come up with the name). It consists of myself, JJ who plays guitar, and two other male guitarists/musicains. We’re all from London.

One of the 11 males here is a 20 year old boy from Bernley named Carl who has a shaved head and an athletic build. He has a few tattoos of his local football team around his body and has a thick ‘northen’ accent. He loves Eminem and sport. When he is with some of the other lads, things can begin to get incredibly immature. Half of the boys are quite into alcohol and women. I remember making a statement in the boys room at the very beginning that I didn’t want any alcohol in the room (this is a camp rule anyway). JJ was the only one who backed me on this as he doesn’t drink either. The other evening on a weekend, Carl had come up to me and pulled me aside with a very hesitant expression on his face. His tone was a little uncertain. As he took a second or two to find his words, I couldn’t help but think he was about to ask if it was OK if he and some of the lads could have a few drinks in the room for the night. His actual words were something like this: “I was wondering if I could come watch to do your prayer tonight, I’d really like to see what you do.” I felt like the world had turned upside down. I would have put money on him being the last to show any interest in this (at least 3 others have asked me the same thing). And so, I took him out to the outskirts of the camp at night and talked him though the prayer and Isamic ethics. I tried to sum it up for him: “Prefer others over yourself… So if you want something like water or whatever, and someone else does too, you give it to them first.” He liked the idea. The next day as we got off the bus with our provided lunch boxes, one girl cried out that she forgot hers. Without hesitation, Carl handed over his lunch box to her and kept his head down. I really respected him for this. He’s since been very quick to give up his seat on the daily bus to our placements from camp too. On being asked who his favourite person on camp was, despite us not hanging out that much, he said it was me.

With the girls things are becoming more complicated. “He makes me feel special, but then I know he makes all the other girls feel special so, I don’t know”. I’ve heard such quotes about me on a few occasions. One Catholic Scottish girl came up to me and apologized. I asked her what for, and she said “I thought you were the most insincere person ever, I just thought no one could be that nice.” Unfortunately I have been told that this girl still thinks I’m insincere, but I’m not sure what I can do about that. I’m told, however, that other girls strongly defend me. I had thought that going down the overtly Muslim route (Muslims hat, beard, public prayer) would avert sexual attraction. It doesn’t. My biggest guard is never going to hotels at the weekend with all the others. I am the only one who consistently stays on camp over the weekends since they always come back with stories about who has done what with who. This kind of talk makes up a big portion of general talk on camp.

I still can’t express enough thanks for JJ being here. With him I can be myself and make as many conceptual comments as I want. He does this too. With most of the others, if my conceptual comments aren’t about relationships, there’s not much interest. I kinda feel like I walk around camp enshrouded with veils that are quite suffocating. Being able to take them off now and then makes a big difference.

Till next time, all the best.

Media Limitations and Manipulations: What freedom are we calling for? P.3/5

All social, political and economic policies and debates are communicated through our media. Therefore, the breadth of our democratic experience is largely defined by the structure of the media and its content. This may not be an immediate cause for panic in itself, but consider this alongside the centralization of corporate media ownership and the picture becomes a lot more worrying. If a handful of companies control the vast majority of what we constantly see, hear, and read about 24hrs a day, then the breadth of our information and democratic experience becomes considerably concentrated and narrowed.

News does not come down to us raw and unadulterated. Rather, it is ‘processed’ and structured in terms of what topics are selected; how information is filtered; what is emphasized and what is ignored; how an issue is framed; and how a debate is bounded. Such tailoring gives Western news a specific ‘character’ to which we have all become innately accustomed.

As author of The Press and Foreign Policy (1993) Bernard Cohen points out, it’s not so much that the media tells you what to think, it’s that they tell you what to think about. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, for example, holds in excess of 130 Newspapers worldwide, including the most widely circulated English newspaper in the world, The Sun. Now seeing as companies such as News Corporation are in competition with the likes of AOL Time Warner, Murdoch’s company will decide to turn many of these newspapers into profitable sensationalist journalism, focusing on the three themes of sex, crime, and sport (Herman and McChesney 1997).

Criteria for much news in general is about what can shock and rouse our emotions as opposed to what is actually informative and useful to society. Crime, sex/money scandals, bizarre/extremist opinions or behaviour, and anything to do with celebrities, occupy a large space within our mass media. Such attention-grabbing topics are also framed in ways that restrict our thinking even further. Violent crime reports, for example, take the form of concise horror stories, creating endless villains and victims out of our citizens rather than discussing the social problems that lead to such incidents. It’s as if unemployment, inequality, poor education, and lack of moral sensitivity in society has nothing to do with such crimes.

Our universities are, of course, filled with experts in such social sciences, but media professionals are largely uninterested in using their knowledge to create an intellectual platform to suggest ways in which we can minimise such offences in the future. Instead, politicians give simple solutions to appease the masses, while disregarding the opinions of experts. Moreover, there have been many studies which show that certain social problems, such as terror, violent and sexual crimes, have been exaggerated way out of proportion, while other studies show that more serious issues – many to do with the environment – are not emphasized enough or are completely ignored. Unsurprisingly, research shows that people who engage with mass media the most are less trusting of other people and more frightened of the outside world.

International Politics

Media has also a strong influence on people’s political opinions due to the majority of sources coming from government and other establishment interests. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky extensively argue that in their book Manufacturing Consent (2002) that the modes of handling material by the mass media serve political ends and maintain existing political and corporate power structures. War is a typical concern for such authors. Political scientist Michael Parenti, for example, points out that “whenever the White House proposes an increase in military spending, press discussion is limited to how much more spending is needed… are we doing enough or need we do still more? No media exposure is given to those who hotly contest the already gargantuan arms budget in its totality”. Typically, two choices are presented to the public but a third option that challenges the status quo is not.

There have been many studies that have analyzed the political biases in the mass media, which are relevant to today’s political climate. In a research-based publication, Bad News from Israel(2004) by Greg Philo and Mike Berry, the two-year study showed that the reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was biased towards Israel, which had significant effect on the attitudes and beliefs of Western audiences. The study showed, for example, that Israelis were interviewed or reported on more than twice as much as Palestinians, and Israeli casualties were strongly emphasised relative to Palestinians despite Palestinian casualties being greater in number. Even the language of news reports was used in such a way that favoured Israel. Words like ‘hit-back’ and ‘retaliate’ were used for Israeli action, while words like ‘murder’ and ‘cold blood’ was used for Palestinian action. There was also a lack of coverage on the context of the situation. That is, the forced mass evacuation of Palestinians from their homes, and a history of ethnic occupation, which, when not mentioned, makes the Palestinians look like they are initiating attacks for no reason.

Contextual details are typically neglected in such reports because essential root causes are seen as far less interesting than more shocking superficial symptoms. French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu captures this point well when he describes news as “a series of apparently absurd stories that all end up looking the same, endless parades of poverty-stricken countries, sequences of events that, having appeared with no explanation, will disappear with no solution – Zaire today, Bosnia yesterday, the Congo tomorrow.” Needless to say, such social and political simplification or manipulation works contrary to the democratic goal of educating people so that they make informed choices.

Biased narratives in the film industry are far less subtle. In his book and documentary Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People Jack Shaheen shows that Hollywood has vilified and portrayed Arabs as sub-human, militant, and barbaric to the masses since the beginning of film. In his research of over 1000 films that involved Arab characters or references, he found that around 90% were negative, 1% were positive, and the rest were neutral. For Shaheen, such “stereotyping has become so wide-spread that it has become invisible.” Similarly, Social Psychologist Sam Keen, creator of Faces of the Enemy claims, “you can hit an Arab free; they are free enemies, free villains – where you couldn’t do it to a Jew or you can’t do it to a black anymore.” Such social scientists never fail to mention the clear political manipulation, which, throughout history, has been used by a variety of political regimes to construct vile, sub-human representations of their enemies to justify invasion, occupation, killing, torture, and social exclusion. The phenomenon of Islamophobia is a current case in point.

We may not be physically forced to comply with state interests as in a dictatorship, though the result is not dissimilar. The corporate race for mass media consumption is a phenomenon that we as citizens pay the price for, both financially, and psychologically, producing news that is generally negative, superficial, and punchy; hardly ever constructive, beneficial, or thought-provoking. Of course, not every item within the media is necessarily shaped by such interests, and good, honest journalism does exist. But the relentless prevalence of social and political misrepresentations on our TVs, news papers, on-line, and on the big screen, is certainly enough for us to question the integrity of our cognitive freedom and the reliability of our democratic

How Social Fear Inhibits Our Freedom: What freedom are we calling for? P.2/5

In Part 1, I discussed the concept of freedom with regards to the banking system and argued that its principles of lending lead to an unjust dynamic between citizens and banks, mirroring a master-slave relationship. Here, I intend to show how crime and the national conditioning of fear are also largely inhibiting our sense of freedom.

National Crime and Security

The lack of freedom that citizens feel due to the highly anticipated threat of crime is often neglected when discussing the Western concept of freedom. Take the UK for example. The Home Office’s British Crime Survey estimated 745,000 domestic burglaries and 1,189,000 incidents of vehicle-related theft in England and Wales in 2010/11. That amounts to about 2000 homes and 3000 cars being broken into every single day. In response, citizens are spending more and more on security. Mintel, a leading market research company, has estimated that the current burglary prevention market is peaking at around £100 million in the UK as we continue to fortify ourselves within our homes.

But what is most alarming is not only the sheer statistical magnitude of property crime in the UK; it’s the psychological states and attitudes that this creates within us. The Office of National Statistics has claimed that 2.5million British citizens pretend to own a dog to guard their homes from burglars, many of whom place misleading dog-bowls at their front doors. In addition, half the population leave their lights on to trick potential intruders, and 1 in 10 Brits ask a neighbour or friend to move their car around when they are away. The list of deception tactics researched by one insurance company is actually quite exhaustive.

Even on the most basic level of human experience, a stranger knocking on your front door in the evening, or approaching you in the street is often met with threat or caution. We instinctively assume that you cannot leave a bicycle unchained in public for the briefest amount of time; and drivers had better hope that no passer-by saw them slip their Satnav into the glove box of the car, lest someone breaks in for it thereafter. You almost have to assume that everyone is a crook just to function in society. Such a lack of feeling safe and constant precaution does not represent the type of ‘free’ society that we would collectively favour. The correct balance between the right kinds of freedom is far from being achieved. Too often it seems that our justice system unwillingly grants the freedom to commit crimes and to re-offend with little consequence, while the freedom to feel safe is largely denied as a result.

World crime statistics typically show crime to be predominately a Western problem, with the US, UK, Germany, France and Russia occupying the top 5 places. But even if we cannot take these statistics entirely at face value due to international criminal recording differences, it’s hard to deny the national construction of criminal fear – particularly through the media – that is especially common in Western societies. Professor of Criminal Justice, Geoffrey R. Skoll, argues that there is a prevalent ‘discourse of crime’, which is said to have been emphasised by governments and the media in the last 30 years. These discourses, which “trickle down from the top levels of ivory towers to popular culture outlets” play on our deepest fears “wherein women are victims of stalking, children are sexually exploited, serial killers lurk in shadows everywhere, and so on”. Our trust in other people, especially strangers, seems to have been shattered by this caution towards criminal activity, which has settled in our public atmosphere.

The Fear of Terror

The construction of national fear in association with the War on Terror is especially significant here. Panic and fear from the overwhelmingly high volume of terror “threats” broadcasted in the media since 9/11 has probably caused more psychological harm to Western nations than any act of terror ever could. For Professor Henry A. Giroux, author of The Abandoned Generation: Democracy beyond the culture of fear (2003) the rhetoric of terrorism is not only important because it addresses human misery, but because it inflicts it as well. Some sociologists have argued that ‘waiting for terror’ is the most typical part of the fear discourse, characterized by a ‘perpetual omnipresent horror’. David Altheide, a Professor of Justice and Social Inquiry uses empirical evidence from news reports to show that the media has repeatedly used the term ‘fear’ in headlines and reports on crime. The association is so strong, that the mere mention of crime immediately implies and engenders fear. Since 9/11, research shows that the same repetitive mentioning of ‘fear’ has been associated with the words ‘terror’ and ‘victim’, producing wider sentiments of insecurity. For Professor Altheide, such fear-conditioning in the media exists because “government officials dominate the sources relied on by journalists”. The wider argument is that our governments are not keen on remedying a scared nation, since national fear pushes the public to consent to more government surveillance and social control (Altheide 2006, Kellner 2003Parenti 2000Glassner 1999). For an excellent and highly informative documentary on some of these issues, please see Adam Curtis’ The Power of Nightmares(2004).

American sociologist and investigative journalist, Christian Parenti, claims that not only does the discourse of crime leave people “scared, divided, cynical, and politically confused” but the prevalence of crime also “short-circuits the social cohesion necessary for radical mobilization”. I will leave it to the discretion of the reader to determine whether or not this is a contributing factor as to why there has never been an effective collective resistance to the economic problems outlined in part 1.

In sum, we have become a culture that accepts fear and caution as an integral part of life. Growing security measures and high crime rates, which are then further exaggerated largely through the media, only heighten this condition of fear, inhibiting both our social and psychological freedoms. If the theories of social control are true, it is all too ironic that some secular societies, which rightly criticised the Church for ruling society through fear of divine punishment, now themselves rule through fear of crime and terror. This once again calls into question the right that we have in the West to call for the ‘freedom’ of others.

In Part 3, I will be investigating the limitations of Western freedom and democracy, specifically in light of the influence of the media.

Banking System and Debt Slavery: What freedom are we calling for? P.1/5

There is a call for ‘freedom’ in the Middle East, both from citizens within its troubled borders, and from our own Western supporters of democracy overseas. This is, of course, with good intention. However, the call seems remarkably simplistic. There is a formulaic image being created of Arab heroes rushing to the streets only to be suppressed, injured, or killed by stubborn, iron-fisted regimes that wish to thwart political freedom. We in the West show our support for our fellow brothers and sisters in humanity under these dictatorships, arguing too that they deserve the right to democratic elections and to other civil liberties that we enjoy here in the West. And so the alleged struggle of freedom vs. oppression / “good vs. evil” continues.

This constructed picture of the situation is troubling. Particularly concerning is the idea that we in the West enjoy some kind of freedom that the Middle East should be aspiring towards. There is no doubt that political freedom in the Middle East is miserably limited. But are we really so much better off? In what follows, I will examine the notion of ‘freedom’ assumed in the West, and consider whether we are in any position to be calling for the freedom of others.

The Philosophy of Freedom

Freedom is not an unconditional virtue in itself. If it wasn’t the case that this seems to be forgotten in modern political discourse, I wouldn’t mention it, but quite often it seems that it is. There are obvious harms that come from certain freedoms. For example, we do not value the freedom to discriminate, or to abuse, or to pollute. Thus we can firmly acknowledge that the prohibition of certain freedoms can actually be a virtue insofar as it prevents harm. Indeed, freedom, like all other social virtues, requires a balance with certain limitations.

In terms of definition, human freedom is generally understood and defined as being able to choose according to our own free will without coercion. The modern emphasis of freedom is almost always on ‘choice’. In the West, this is typically celebrated in our freedom to say, do, elect, and pursue what we want in our lives. The surface appeal of this type of liberalism is strong, especially to the citizens of dictatorships in the Middle East. But there are a couple of essential factors that are almost entirely neglected in such a sense of freedom. First, freedom is not only about choice, it’s also about the options that are given to us. Who decides and gives us these options? There doesn’t seem to be anything especially democratic, for example, about being given two options to choose from, when you had little to no say in what those two options were in the first place. Second, to what extent do the values of our society – which we are constantly and necessarily subjected to – influence the extent to which we desire such choices? We might find that these often ignored factors of available ‘options’ and external ‘influence’ are far more fundamental to the notion of freedom than the rather static aspect of ‘choice’ on its own.

There are a number of spheres within our socio-economic and cultural system that manifest this essentially philosophical problem of Western freedom. Of course, each of the following sections deserves a thesis of its own regarding the issue, but I will try to outline some basic realities that are immediately relevant to us as individuals, specifically on a day-to-day basis.

Banking System and Debt Slavery

Starting with the banking system and its creation of national debt, then, the root problem here is in what is called “Fractional Reserve Banking”. What this basically means is that all the money that the banks physically reserve in their accounts is only a fraction of the much larger amount that they lend out. This allows for more loans to be issued, putting more and more people in debt. But where does the extra loaned money come from if it is not part of the banks reserves? Well, they create it from nothing through a leverage principle called the money multiplier. This means that the loans we take out from the banks typically have no inherent value.

When you take out a loan from a bank, the bank transfers a digital number to your account. There is no actual value to what is transferred; it is just an electronic number. It’s a bit like when you arbitrarily change the time on a digital watch. In return, you are compelled to repay this ‘loan’ with tangible work, usually through some mundane or unpleasant job, for what feels like most of your waking life. And if, for whatever reason, you cannot repay the loan; in the case of a mortgage, your home, car, or any other items put down as collateral – which do have value – will be repossessed; or in the case of a standard loan, you will be prosecuted or have your possessions forcefully taken by bailiffs. The addition of interest to your repayment not only tightens the iron collar, but prolongs the repayment indefinitely – typically, a lifetime and beyond. UK Debt statistics from Credit Action show that the total UK personal debt at the end of December 2011 stood at £1.451 trillion, with the average debt of every UK adult being more than the average national wage. The alarming truth is that there is not enough money in existence, in the form of attainable income, to pay off our average spending, bank loans, and their accrued interest at any point in time. It is systematically impossible. The outcome is such that at least 300 people a day are declared insolvent or bankrupt (can’t pay off their debts), and around 100 properties are repossessed by the banks every single day (this is a far greater concern in the US). In addition, research published in both The Economic Journal and theJournal of Health Economics continues to confirm a link between debt and stress, depression, and mental health problems (Gathergood 2012Disney and Bridges 2010), while an article from USA Today sees psychologists claiming that debt problems are linked to marital breakdown, domestic violence, and even suicide: a high price to pay for unjust principles in our economic system.

Of course, no one is strictly forced into these economic situations, but getting a mortgage and a /or a car loan are practical necessities in the modern age. Ordinary folk are lured into taking on these burdensome responsibilities through seductive advertising that glosses over the potential difficulties. High pressure and/or psychologically sophisticated bank salesmen are pushed by the bank to “sell products” (make loans) in various ways, and are paid commission to do so. Therefore they are no longer assisting a depositor in a professional capacity with professional responsibilities, but flogging as many goods and services as possible in any way they can. Thus ordinary citizens, few of whom have been taught the basics of finance in our state schools, are subtly pushed into a situation that leads straight to the unpleasant constraints of debt.

So in sum, the banks generally seduce and give you digits of no actual monetary value, oblige and pressure you to work hard to repay the illusionary debt, and will ruin your life and take away your highest valued possessions if you do not. Household debt thus mirrors many of the attributes of an oppressive master-slave relationship: ownership, obedience, burden, and severe punishment. And no political party running for elections ever offers an alternative to this fractional reserve, interest-based banking system since central banks – which benefit abundantly from this system – have close relationships with their respective governments and have strong authority over their economic policies (Moser-Boehm 2006). In addition, the major banks influence who runs and succeeds in ‘democratic’ elections since they heavily fund advertising for their political campaigns. Thus our ‘option’ to be released from this economic enslavement is not available, hence a clear lack of freedom. I should mention that this has branched out to be a worldwide problem, but is most certainly driven by affluent centralised Western banks.

Of course, the effect of an unjust economic system has wider social implications. Capitalism places importance on a free market economy, individualism, and a relentless ambition for company profit. This often means that optimal productivity requires the reduction of paid human labour. Hence, we have continuous wage cuts and redundancies, the replacing of people with automated machines, and the setting up of labour forces in poorer non-Western countries, which means unemployment and inequality become pressing realities in Western states. Meanwhile, psychologists consistently show that the rise and prevalence of unemployment and inequality correlates strongly with the rise of crime (DeLamater et al 2011: 382).

In Part 2, I will be examining our sense of freedom once again, but within the context of crime, personal security, and fear.

India Part 2: Arriving at Camp

We have arrived at the camp in the town of Jaisalmer, in the state of Rajasthan, NW India. We travelled on a tightly packed bedded train. On the long overnight journey from Jaipur to here, I learnt a lesson. A quintessential volunteer – a short, overweight, young, plane faced girl came to the area that I and a few of the boys were resting in and just wanted to talk to me. I struggled to keep awake as I was trying to sleep before she came, and I didn’t really know why she had come to me, but I gave her my full attention for as long as I could. She stood in the dark train aisle talking to me for an hour about her concerns and life back home. In that time, I got to see that she was more than the stereotype I had thrown here into; she was an individual with her own personality and identity. This encouraged me to speak to everyone on this level to try and rid myself of stereotyping.

I can’t upload pictures of the camp, but I can hopefully describe it in less than a thousand words. We are in a desert. Jaisalmer does have a busy town center consisting of endless markets and small shops, but we are situated about a 25minute drive away from it in the middle of nowhere. The camp consists of a few mud/dung/sand/some brick buildings around a square area a little smaller than a football pitch with all buildings around the edges enclosing an open space of dry earth, stones, lined shrubs, and a couple of shelters and pathways. Almost everything on the camp is sand colored. Beyond the camp there is only desert, sprinkles of dry agriculture, and wind turbines for as far as the eye can see – endless dry horizon in every direction. There are never any clouds, the sun beats down on us all day (quite unbearably at times) and it is between warm and cool in the night. The tips of every sunrise and sunset are visually unhindered.

The room (hut) that all 11 boys are in is not as bad as I thought. It’s actually quite spacious with high ceilings holding 5 bunk beds and a single bed for us all. I took the nearest bottom bunk to the door so I can make a quick and quiet exit when I need to solely wake for morning prayer. There is sand everywhere. As I lay down on the bottom bunk facing up, I noticed previous volunteers had littered the bases of the top bunks with messages: “You have no idea what u have let urself in for. You’ll go mad with boredom. Don’t hold your breath for electricity, running water or getting laid. Prepare for insanity. It’s like a prison here.” Another simply read: “you got the bottom bunk. Wanker.”

We soon attended a meeting where we met all the ‘executives’. In other words, the Indian staff here who are running things: heads, cook, driver, first aider, assistants etc, – about a dozen natives in total. Ground rules where also established. Various forms of misconduct can result in getting sent home. For example, alcohol is not permitted on the premises, and you are not allowed to leave the camp after 7pm. Depending on severity, consequences are: a verbal warning, then a written warning, and a final warning before being sent home. I regret to inform you all that I am the first volunteer to have been given a verbal warning. This was actually issued before we arrived at camp. What was my crime? I rode on the back of a motorbike of a native Indian dude. I’ve done this three times, though twice was because they had offered to take me to a mosque, and once for fun. The fun occasion earned me the warning. At the same time however, Platform2 have asked and trained 2 volunteers out of the 48 to carryout an evaluation task in week 5, and I’m one of them, so I’m hoping they won’t be so quick to ship me back. I will, however, be more careful in the future (not to get caught). I’m finding the rules very inhibiting. Especially not being allowed to wonder on my own and having to be in bed by 11pm. On one of my hunts for isolation after dinner on the first evening, I exited the camp area to find a little circular shelter on elevated ground behind one of the camp’s corners. I figured no one else would discover it or be seeking isolation, but about 15mins later, JJ – my London, Congolese friend – had walked out seeking exactly the same thing. We really are alike. I cannot stress how glad I am that he is here.

At night there is no electricity, so you have to use a torch to do everything, even to walk to the toilets across camp. Showers consist of going into a cracked, filthy stone cubed room and pouring buckets of murky water over your head. I don’t even want to mention the state of the toilets, though all of a sudden eating little has become a brilliant idea. On one of my wonders within camp I noticed the soft faced northerner – the girl who was sending the text on the bus – speaking on her phone. I waited at distance till she finished. She was in tears and claimed she had just told her mum that she wanted to go home. I took her aside and sat her under one of the shelters and this time, explicitly told her at length all the reasons why she should stay, and what a great opportunity this is, how there are natives here who live worse than this all around us without choice, and how likely it was that she would regret leaving if she didn’t give it time. She seemed to agree.

I’ve tried to be as helpful as I can around camp and I think I am the only volunteer to have spoken to and memorized everyone’s name. This means I chat to absolutely everyone. I’m finding it tricky to put a finger on my identity among the other volunteers. First off, I’m the only Muslim. I still wear the Muslim hat almost constantly and practically everyone knows I pray. I make no secret of it. In fact, I announce it before leaving a group, but very casually. I do not talk about Islam unless I am asked and have noticed that on such occasions, passers by will stop to listen in. This is not because anything I have to say is necessarily engaging but because there is nothing to do in this camp. I use myself quite consistently to help others, especially the females. In an environment where much daily functioning is practical, the endurance difference between men and women becomes more apparent, especially in this heat (as opposed to Western cities where day to day activities are all pretty comfortable for both genders). For example, on our travels between towns, on approaching a wide, long staircase on the train platform, each and every volunteer was carrying a suitcase of at least 20kg in the heat. It was a struggle by anyone’s standards. After getting to the top first, I repeatedly raced down and up, and grabbed bags in pairs from the female volunteers and placed them at the top of the stairs. Most of the other boys immediately joined in grabbing bags from females and every girl was more than happy to be helped. The boys actually performed the task with a sense of duty. It was a striking case of chivalry that was accepted by everyone. Other things include offering my seat to the ladies, carrying their water buckets, comforting them when upset and not coping, etc. Part of me is doing it because it’s right, and part of me is doing it because it will help me feel more positive about the relationships I make here.

A couple of the boys have brought guitars and I have somehow and very wrongly been labeled ‘singer’. JJ plays guitar and we ‘jam’ quite a lot. We have a lot of fun and have even discovered beats to go with some of my raps. The other volunteers seem to enjoy them. I’ve had to alter my attitude to music slightly. I don’t personally ascribe much value to it, but for the people here it means so much and rates quite highly in their ‘deep experiences’, so I’m quite active in the music scene on camp. Though, it’s mostly just for laughs, singing romantic boy-band songs that everyone knows. I have also disclosed that I have done some acting, mainly because a few people do theater here and it’s been a topic we can connect on. It seems to surprise them but in a good way.

Now as for teaching, everyone has been asked to select one from about 9 different placements to work on across three different villages. Everyone had a choice in his or her placement. Everyone except me. I was singled out by one of the head executives and told that since they, as Hindus, have trouble outreaching to a Muslim community in the area, I would be put to use in the Day Care Center (pre-school) of the Muslim village. What was my special task? To go into the community and encourage parents to send their kids to the day care center. Without knowing Hindi of course…? Two other volunteers have chosen the same Day Care Center that I have been placed into. Chloe is one of them, and a Jordy girl, Amy is another. It’ll be us three, every Mon-Fri, till the end.

I figured I would tell Chloe and Amy a thing or two about Islam so that they understood the environment they were going into. As the three of us sat in the eating area on camp, I was explaining basic Islamic beliefs and was interrupted by a tall slim, blue eyed committed Christian: “I’m sorry to interrupt Ziad, but Jesus wasn’t only sent to the Jews, in the New Testament, Paul says…” I really did not want to get into this. Luckily, one of the girls turned and responded to him before I did: “Well Zee’s just giving us the Muslim view.” What a great response. I affirmed it: “Yes, it’s the Muslim perspective”. That seemed to kill any tension leading to debate. He left it there but still made a comment to undermine me later. On a few occasions he’s made false assumptions about my life, but I pleasantly correct him and show him as much love as the others. He is a good guy but very much all about Jesus, Love, the New Testament, “the Heart and not the Law”. Incidentally, he is the only other male volunteer to have been labeled as a singer. I get the feeling that he’s not quite settled regarding me.

We all visited the schools and the day care center in the Muslim village this week and I have to say, this was the lowest point of my time here. We were told in advance that the Muslims were the naughtiest community. The schools however were cool. Kids (3-12) were eager, lively, happy to see us and they all loved the fact that I was a Muslim (the hat was a give away, again). It was a big deal to them because they weren’t used to it. If I was given the choice like everyone else, I would have definitely chosen to teach in a school rather than the Day Care Center. But at the same time, I accept that this must be what’s best for me. The Day Care Center consists of a room with around 15 kids, 95% female, from babies to young teens. The kids were quite rude and almost entirely uneducated. Their teacher was a slim Indian lady with a disability. She had polio, which in her case meant that she had muscle paralysis in her legs and therefore was constantly sitting and moved around on her arms. Many of the toddlers were half naked, dirty, and the room smelt awful. It was a disturbing site. When fellow volunteers teaching at the school saw the Day Care Center, they were thanking the heavens that they did not have our task. Everyone unanimously agreed that my group had it worse. We all felt very uncomfortable in that room. For the first time, I’m genuinely asking myself, how on earth am I going to do this, which is not a question I’m ever in the habit of asking.

We’ll see how it all goes this week, but I’m really not looking forward to it.

Peace be with you all