Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Dutch Sikh

Afghanistan has been a permanent fixture in the news for over 30 years now, and always for the wrong reasons. While the Western media's coverage lately has been about the loss of Western resources - life and money, we are slowly desensitized to the plight of the general population in this Central Asian nation. Little thought is given to the conditions of women and the minorities, of which there are many. Afghanistan straddles the famous Silk Route and the centuries have seen influxes and influences from all over the world. The assumption that Afghanistan is a homogeneous society of tribal communities with superficial differences is a common fallacy. The mish-mash that is Afghanistan comprises of culturally distinct influences from the Greeks, the Mongols, the Russians, the former states of the Soviet Bloc, the Indians, the Buddhists, the Persians, the Arabs, and the Chinese.

One such community is the Sikhs in Afghanistan. This is the community I am from. Afghanistan is where my roots lie. Where, if history had been different, I would still be. Like many Afghans in far flung corners of the world, I miss it, I lament it's state and I know that a return to the carefree days of my childhood will probably never happen. My children have never known the land of their forefathers - apart from what they've seen in the media or in The Kite Runner or The Bear Trap. Maybe they never will. As for me, I'm not sure. I once wrote a poem about this, which you can see here.

A week ago, I received an email from a man who calls himself The Dutch Sikh. Based in London, Pritpal Singh is a former Afghan refugee, now a Dutch citizen and a journalist by profession. Pritpal recently visited Afghanistan, bringing back a treasure trove of images that I have been poring over for days, trying to recognise the locations, looking at the faces of the people in them and the country raped by three decades of barbarism. 

Pritpal is currently working on two documentaries of his trip to Afghanistan, one titled Mission Afghanistan based on his experiences of visiting the land he'd left years ago and the exploration of his roots. The second documentary would be a travelogue the historical Hindu and Sikh shrines in Afghanistan, something that has never been done before. While we wait with bated breath for their release, Pritpal has put together a teaser trailer for Mission Afghanistan on You Tube. See below.

The photoset of his travels can be seen here.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Priorities, priorites

Saw this floating around on the internet, not sure who it's by.

A professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, he wordlessly picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with golf balls. He then asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.

The professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the golf balls. He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed it was.

The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He asked once more if the jar was full. The students responded with a unanimous "yes".

The professor then produced two beers from under the table and poured the entire contents into the jar effectively filling the empty space between the sand. The students laughed.

"Now," said the professor as the laughter subsided, "I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The golf balls are the important things - your family, your children, your health, your friends and your favourite passions - and if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house and your car. The sand is everything else - the small stuff."

"If you put the sand into the jar first," he continued, "there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls. The same goes for life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Spend time with your children. Spend time with your parents. Visit with grandparents. Take your spouse out to dinner. Play another 18. There will always be time to clean the house and mow the lawn. Take care of the golf balls first - the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand."

A silence descended on the class as they took in the deep insight. 

One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the beer represented. The professor smiled and said, "I'm glad you asked. The beer just shows you that no matter how full your life may seem, there's always room for a couple of beers."

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Frothing over coffee

I've had it with the Starbucks outrage. Not a word is being said about the gross inaccuracies in the figures reported. No mention is being made of the contribution Starbucks makes to the wider economy and the number of Starbucks coffee shops that AREN'T part of the company, i.e., they're franchises - tiny little operations that are connected by brand name and product lines alone. So while they guzzle down Frappuccinos and Americanos, wearing branded clothing and fill up on products from Big Oil, these protesters fail to see anything other than the fact that some companies are bigger than others. Those companies did not grow big because the government handed them money. They became successful and grew because someone worked really hard and took huge risks. That’s what life is about.

No mention is made of the fact that Starbucks employs thousands of people, and pays national insurance on their wages. No one talks about how Starbucks tends to operate from the most expensive real estate wherever they have an outlet, paying the highest business rates possible; no mention is made of the payment of VAT, which is 20% of pretty much EVERYTHING they sell. 

The average cost of a cup of coffee at a Starbucks is two, sometimes three times as much as your local Kelly's Cafe, but you're too 'educated' to be seen there, aren't you?

It can be argued that government and regulations favour larger corporations. Yes they do. All regulation squeezes out the little guy. The larger the government, the more promises it makes to voters, the more its need for money to blow on frivolous schemes, social experiments and feel-good appeasement. A different argument altogether, which I'm sure I'll end up having some time soon on here.

If there's anything the protesters need to learn, it's this: Whining because you went to university and no one will hire you isn't going to help, no matter how much you whine. A business will not give you a job because you have a degree; they'll hire you because you bring profit to their company. If you don’t bring in more money than you cost the company, why on earth should they hire you? They’re not a charity; they’re a business. And if they were a charity, where would the wages to sustain you come from? 

You earn your keep. That's how it works. Your work ethic, your motivation, your problem solving skills, initiative and inventiveness are going to be far more important than whether you produced a cracker of a report at university. That doesn't mean all university degrees are bad, but are they relevant to what any business needs? In the end, it’s whether or not you’re flexible enough to keep learning new skills so that you can contribute to the business. Get a degree, by all means. It will teach you structure, it will give you in-depth knowledge of an industry or vocational or academic sector, but don't bet on it to be the be-all, end-all of your existence. It's not. You are, your adaptability is. A degree and all its learning is just one of your many weapons. The Star Trek TNG world isn't happening yet - as a species we're not ready. 

Giving. The big word you constantly scream about. It's time you did some, like your forefathers did. The world is built on the sacrifices of people who gave more than they received. We're going nowhere until we hard-wire that into our brains. A previous generation gave everything, while we just want everything. Go work out how you can give and add value, not moan because people aren't handing you anything. Besides, there’s nothing left to hand out. You can complain all you want that some people are rich, or that no one will give you a job, or that no one is giving their hard earned wealth away, and why should they? Government has no money, apart from what it can borrow (which of course we and our children will have to pay back) or levy on others. The more they take from others, the more the economy slows down. Are you even looking at the stories emerging from Greece? Or Spain? Or Italy? Look it up - you have a degree ferfuxake!

Get out there. Learn a skill, volunteer if you must. Get some expertise - something the world wants. Hustle, push hard, build something, do something. Make yourself marketable. Learn how to recognise your abilities and strengths and then sell them. Get help if you need to. The government spends millions to help you learn to fish, but you'd rather just have the fish, isn't it? 

That, is part of your problem.


With effect from today, I'm switching over to Starbucks. I don't rate their coffee highly, but hey I'm no connoisseur. I never did care where my 8 AM kick comes from. I'm gonna have to now. 

This mindless vilification of companies that pay the highest business rates in the land, millions in national insurance, collect and administer millions in VAT on behalf of the government, and employ thousands will mainly hurt pension funds and small investors.

Agreed, there'll be some 'big boys' with a large holding, but to get at them we'll be screwing over a lot more people; a bit like cutting your nose to spite your face. 

PLUS, the lower the corporation tax, the higher the dividend, which in turn means higher personal taxes. 

A significant number of Starbucks stores are franchise stores - businesses owned by what you would consider the 'little guy'. This witch hunt will decimate their tiny little enterprises and affect their employees in ways you never intended.

Corporation tax is immoral. Period.

Thursday, 11 October 2012


There are and will continue to be various dissections of David Cameron's speech at the Conservative Party Conference; what he said, what he didn't say, what he should have said, what he shouldn't have said, what he avoided saying and so on. So-called political pundits, most of them with very little at stake, armchair activists and indignant bloggers will second-guess and interpret what they read between the lines. We'll hear more about what they think he said instead of what he actually said, ignoring that he leads a party with a splintered opinion, which in turn governs a nation with an even more splintered opinion. Most of course don't have any idea how difficult reconciling everything into one coherent message is. But then that's just how the game goes.

I liked the speech. I liked it a lot. Pretty much all of what he said made sense to me. It would, after all I voted for him and his party. The direction we're taking and the things he said ensures I will continue to do so.

There was however, one part of the speech that hit home more than any other. It actually brought a lump to my throat, and yes, I gave in. I did cry a bit. It was the part about his Dad. It sounded like someone I know.

As it happens, I do have a hard luck story. My Dad was a buccaneer of a businessman in what is best described as the wild frontier of the wild, wild west. Except it was in Afghanistan of the 80s and the 90s. Of two decades of severe collectivist ideology - the first one communist (the Soviets) and the second religious (the Taleban and their predecessors). Having lost him over 22 years ago, I have learned one thing: The true value of the wisdom you consider overbearing preaching, the protectiveness you consider undue smothering and the boundaries you consider to be some kind of imprisonment only dawn on you when they're gone. Today, I would give anything for 10 minutes with him, if only to ask, "What do I do now, Dad?" and yes, "I love you Dad." Somehow I always feel I never said that enough.

The eldest of four, my Dad was afflicted with polio at a very young age, probably even before he learned to walk. He spent the rest of his life with one leg in steel callipers, a stick in one hand and in constant pain. His three siblings and his four children surpassed his height even before they hit puberty, but my Dad towered over everyone else. From less than humble beginnings, his indomitable will and determination built a business spread over five countries from scratch. He was a pioneer; among the first of a generation to travel the world, to own a colour television, to buy a Mercedes Benz, and to send his children to a boarding school - which he chose by simply asking, "Which one is the best?" instead of how much. He was going to find the money, somehow. While rockets flew overhead and bombs exploded at every street corner, he slaved away, in the snow, in the cold, against all odds, living for his family - his parents, his brothers, his children, his mother. All this despite his disability and his health. He wasn't an only child, but as I learned later in life, he was a lonely child - perhaps even a lonely grown-up. Even so, he was always optimistic, his glass was always half full. And yes, it was usually with something alcoholic in it. His peers called him 'Tiger', and the name stuck. He was just as rare as one.

In the end it wasn't his health or disability or refills of his glass that got him. It was the goodness of his heart. He gave. He gave like no other, while others took without as much as a 'by your leave'. It was his broken heart that slowly withered him and eventually his little frame gave in. As a teenager, I watched it happen before my very eyes. Today I am constantly surrounded by faces of those who took and though the rage inside me has fermented during all these years, I know how he would have wanted me to be. He'd want me to get on with it. He'd want me to know that I'm powerful beyond my wildest dreams and that all I need to do is work hard. He did it with one functioning leg while carrying his parents, his siblings, his children and a surprising number of dependant extended family members on his shoulders, in a country where if you don't work, you die. He turned his hard luck story into a hard work one. 

David Cameron's speech just reminded me that I have to do the same.