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Deeply poetic
May I recommend to NI readers an exceptionally good novel about the Narmada called A River Sutra by Gita Mehta (Minerva 1993)? The lives of musicians, adivasis, an archaeologist, a Jain ascetic and a Sufi Mullah are profoundly influenced by the Narmada’s mythology of love and even the gently ironic narrator, a retired Hindu civil servant, is not immune. Throughout this simple and deeply poetic novel you can almost feel the water round you and understand why the world has to fight for the Narmada’s life.

Claire Desenclos
London, England

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Cover of the NI issue 335 Relentless criticism
The excellent issue on oil (Mired in crude, NI 335) contained several informative articles on the environmental impact and disturbing power of oil multinationals. However I feel that the article on their ‘greenwash’ (‘A convenient confusion’) was overly relentless in its criticism.

The new marketing strategies designed to display the environmental credentials of these companies may well be clouding the bigger picture, but clearly these corporations respect the consumer power that they so desperately try to influence. After all, it’s from consumers that Exxon Mobil reaped its record profits last year. Surely then consumers around the world deserve a share of the reprimand for blatantly not using this power effectively enough to redress the balance. As soon as demand shifts more heavily in favour of renewables, as it must do, you can bet that the same corporations will be standing in line for yet more of our well-earned currency. Their ‘greenwashing’ will at least have much-needed impact on consumer awareness of the need for change.

Yes, it’s a small start and it’s been a long time coming, but we should be praising any promotion of alternatives to fossil fuels, however small.

Stuart Riddle
Bristol, England

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Cover of the NI issue 336 Solid support
The section ‘If no big dam, what?’ (Do or die: Narmada, NI 336) encourages me to draw your attention to the British charity Wells for India, which works with local Gandhian NGOs in Rajasthan, one of the driest states in India. Rajasthan has been particularly badly hit by the failure of the monsoon for the last three years, resulting in the dislocation of the farming economy, major shortages of food and water, and the deaths of over a million heads of livestock in the Thar desert area outside cities like Udaipur and Jodhpur. Wells for India works with local NGOs directly in the villages, not only to conduct a massive relief operation, but over the longer term to develop traditional low-cost, low-tech solutions to the problems of village water management, and to encourage village social development, particularly aimed at improving the status of women. As your article says, ‘No big projects, no big money’ – but that’s not the solution for India’s villages, anyway. The answer lies in mobilizing the villagers themselves through self-help groups.

Wells for India can be contacted at:
The Winchester Centre,
68 St George’s Street, Winchester, Hants SO23 8AH, UK
( www.wellsforindia.com ).

Tom Holder
Eastleigh, England

PS I don’t run the charity, I’m just a lowly supporter...

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Power not primacy

We'll never solve intractable issues by trying to decide who was there first

Charles Phillips (Letters NI 336) asserts that Muslims got a dose of their own medicine in Jerusalem because they had ruthlessly seized it from the original inhabitants. This is a pointless argument because if he cared to read the Old Testament he would find that the Jews under King David seized Jerusalem from the Jebusites about 3,000 years ago (2 Samuel, Chapter 5).

We’ll never solve intractable issues like Israel/Palestine by trying to decide who was there first. But it is unreasonable to expect the Palestinians to trust the current government in Israel while it is headed by the Butcher of Sabra and Chatila. And also while the United Nations Security Council – controlled in effect by the United States in this respect – spearheads the international campaign against Iraq for ignoring UN resolutions but has stubbornly refused to enforce all UN resolutions criticizing Israel for more than 50 years.

Charles Phillips can reasonably criticize the violence of the Israeli military as well as Hamas, but it is not helpful to call for negotiation and compromise when there is such an imbalance in the regional power situation to start with.

Peter D Jones
Hobart, Australia

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Great compromise
I was appalled by Charles Phillips’ position (Letters, NI 336). First, the suggestion that 21st-century Palestinians should pay for what the Arab armies did in the seventh century (which was against the Byzantine Empire and not a long-gone Jewish state, by the way) is absurd. Second, Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount/Haram may have offended the Palestinians, but religion has very little to do with the origins or continuation of the conflict. Palestinian society features moderate and radical Islamists, but also has large Christian and secular constituencies.

To understand the situation, rather than poring over ancient Jewish and Islamic history, one should look at the history of colonialism. Many Palestinians, indigenous to the area for centuries, were violently displaced by European and American settlers in 1948. Since the invasion of the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians there have been in a similar situation as blacks in Rhodesia or South Africa before liberation. In fact, a simple and moderate solution to the conflict in Palestine has been around for decades: Israel should obey international law, end its military and colonial occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and allow Palestinians displaced in 1948 and their descendants to return to their property in Israel. Considering the disaster of 1948, this is already a great compromise from the Palestinians.

Richard Bartholomew
London, England

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Language, please
Adrian Cooper reports (‘Translate this!Megalomedia, NI 333) that some Kenyan journalists and musicians are trying to encourage the development of their own culture in the face of massive imports of pop culture from the West. In the middle of this interesting article, I was shocked to meet the casual phrase ‘Luo, one of Kenya’s 44 ethnic dialects’.

Luo is a language spoken by about three-and-a-half million people, written in the Roman alphabet. The practice of referring to non-European languages as ‘dialects’ is just another aspect of the cultural imperialism that Adrian Cooper was deploring. Properly speaking, a dialect is a variety of a language, differing from other dialects of the same language but mutually intelligible with them. Thus, Cockney and Yorkshire are dialects of English.

According to the best source available to me, Kenya has 61 languages including English. Many of them are small and endangered; but as long as a speech form is not mutually intelligible with any other it is a language and not a dialect.

Kay Williamson
Department of Linguistics and Communication Studies,
University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria

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Tariffs for training
Given all the hype over ‘intellectual property rights’, it is surprising that probably the biggest abuse – the theft of ‘brains’ by richer countries from poorer ones – has been largely ignored.

Here in sub-Saharan Africa, where countries are lucky if they can spend $12 per head of population on healthcare, nurses were recently being recruited to work in the British National Health Service. It is hardly surprising, given their abysmally low wages, that nurses trained in Zambia are attracted to work in Britain. For ‘nurse’ substitute doctor, architect, physicist, or pharmacist and for ‘Zambia’ substitute India, Thailand, Ghana or South Africa. Consider the US where it was recently reported that over 50 per cent of doctors had been trained in India.

What can be done to ensure the ‘brain drain’ does not penalize poorer countries so much? It would be relatively straightforward to set up international agreements whereby richer countries paid a tariff for trained people coming to work. Is this not a legitimate job for the WTO?

John Gleisner
Lusaka, Zambia

Letter from Lebanon

1,600 days alone
Reem Haddad encounters a doctor whose every moment is precious.

He counts them effortlessly. There’s no need to think. The marks on the prison walls are ever present in his mind: 1,600 days in solitary confinement and almost the same number again in other prisons. Altogether he spent 2,955 days – or eight years, one month and five days – before being released.

His name is Dr Joseph Hallit – better known to inmates as number 16 – and he was released on 15 December last year from a Syrian prison. He had been charged with ‘communicating’ with the Lebanese Forces, a Christian militia active during the 16-year Lebanese civil war.

And now he wanted me to write his story.

‘Not just my story,’ he said. ‘But the plight of political prisoners who were released from Syrian jails. Nobody wants to hire them. Employers get scared.’

So do newspapers. I regarded Hallit with wonder. Would the local newspaper even print his story?

An association with Syria – the main power broker in Lebanon with about 25,000 troops in the country – causes fear in Lebanese communities. But Hallit wanted to speak out. In the months since his release he has turned himself into a human-rights activist urging society to allow the reintegration of ex-prisoners.

Life for him has started again. At 40, it’s not too late. There’s a lot to do. Every minute has to be savoured. ‘I figured that if I sleep two hours less every night I may be able to catch up with the first five years,’ he said. ‘I can never catch up with all eight though.’

Hallit’s ordeal began on 11 November 1992 just after he obtained his medical degree from a Syrian university and was preparing to leave for the US to continue his studies. He was arrested at a café in Damascus. For the next 15 days, he was interrogated – and brutally beaten.

In his cell, Hallit stared at his bloody arms with exposed torn nerves and muscles dangling from one of them. The choice was clear: survive or wither away.

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Illustration by Sarah John

Determination took over and he grabbed a plastic spoon from his lunch tray, pushed the nerve and muscle back inside his arm and wrapped it tightly. With only a tiny slit in the door to tell him whether it was day or night in his solitary confinement, he marked the walls to keep track of the passing days and months. ‘I never saw the sky.’

Every 60 days, he was allowed a shower. It was four years before he was transferred to another prison and allowed to join other political prisoners.

Five years after his arrest, Hallit’s case officially went to court. Unbeknown to him, he was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment. After 310 days, he was transferred to another prison.

By now, Hallit’s sisters had discovered his whereabouts and were allowed a half-hour visit every three months. His elderly mother, however, was told that her son was studying in the US. To keep up the bluff, Hallit wrote her a letter every so often and his sisters inserted some money.

Meanwhile, with money supplied by his sisters, Hallit set up a ‘clinic’ and ‘pharmacy’ near his bed by purchases through the prison guards. He bought syringes, a stethoscope, a blood-pressure gauge, a diabetes testing unit and a cardiograph. As guards left the doors between cells open for most of the day, Hallit wandered from room to room attending to the sick. His reputation got around and soon even prison guards and supervisors started going to him complaining of ailments.

On 11 December 2000, Hallit and 16 other Lebanese inmates were suddenly transferred to the Lebanese Defence Ministry.

‘And then on the fifth day at 6.00pm, without even so much as a question, the door was opened and the guard told me to leave,’ recalled Hallit. ‘I didn’t move. I didn’t know what he meant. Then the guard said “Come on – go!”’

When Hallit finally made his way back to the family home, he announced to his mother that he was back from his studies in the US. ‘She asked me about my luggage,’ he said laughing. ‘And I told her it was lost at the airport. To this day, she has no idea that I was in prison. If she were to find out, it would kill her.’

Two months later, Hallit became a regular volunteer at Lebanese prisons tending to the sick. He works at the YMCA and trains in a hospital. His dream of pursuing his medical studies abroad are long gone. Instead, he will begin courses this fall in hospital administration at the local university.

‘I know it will take me eight years to regain what I lost and another eight years to rebuild,’ he said. ‘But there’s a future for me out there and I have to run to catch up.’

Reem Haddad works for the Daily Star in Beirut.
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New Internationalist issue 338 magazine cover This article is from the September 2001 issue of New Internationalist.
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