Tuesday, August 26, 2014


Apologies for the long hiatus in writing. I suppose I should apologise for interrupting the silence with writing.
I have found myself, over the last few months, at a loss as to what to say about anything: it seemed every time I put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, stale, lumpen phrases would emerge, ruining the pristine whiteness of the page or screen with a kind of grey detritus. Of course, what we write and say are as reflections of our mental state, supposedly, so I can only assume that my dominant mode of thought has been stale, lumpen and grey. A bit like a dead whale or something. The thing with dead whales is, given the right conditions, they eventually explode.
Now, I'm not saying that my mind is on the verge of blowing up and covering all and sundry with putrid viscera, although you may disagree by the time you reach the end of this article. Rather, I'm writing in reaction to a local something that has left me feeling somewhat beslimed.
I could write about Syria, and Iraq, and Gaza, and Israel, and the whole damn mess of the Middle East, and in fact, I will later; I could write about the Scottish Independence Vote further, and I still have a little more to say about it, in fact; I could write about Ukraine and Russia, or Cops and Residents in Ferguson, MO.
I could write about all these, and mine would be just another little voice, another little article, in the great sea of voices, the clamouring great winedark ocean of opinion.
Instead, I'm going to write about tribes. Or rather, not: I'm going to respond to some spectacularly ill-judged and misinformed statements about 'tribes' that I and several hundred others had the misfortune to be in the presence of some little while ago. First off, would you consider yourself to belong to a tribe? What is a tribe, anyway? Is it the same as a family or a clan? Is it a group of like-minded families gathered together in the name of communal protection? Is it a religious affiliation? Is it a gang? Is it a bunch of people who share the same workspace, or do the same job?
I happen to think the word 'tribe' has tremendous connotations attached to it, and I don't mean 'tremendous' in a good way. It smacks of colonialism to my mind: It has the whiff of a mildewed solar topee attached to it, of an elderly man with extravagant moustaches and a fly swatter made from an elephant's tail regaling someone with tales of the Raj from his retirement villa in Eastbourne. It implies, even confers, a kind of inferiority to anyone so apparently unfortunate as to be assigned to a tribe. The word conjures up images of savages who need to be quelled, educated and conformed. Hence my tendency to squirm whenever I hear it being used.
So you can imagine my discomfort and slight shock when I heard someone say the following: 'In Africa, people belong to different tribes and if they meet, they fight'.
Yes. Right.
I mean, erk.
This statement seems to have come freshly packaged, hot and steaming, straight out of the 1930s. It ignores the fact that Africa consists of more than one country, for starters. It ignores the demarcations of religion, language, borders, culture and politics and jumps for the lumpen blitheness of 'tribes'.
Thankfully, nothing was mentioned about 'waving spears' or 'heathen savages', so thank God for small mercies.
There was, however, more in this vein.
How about this?
'The Sunnis are a tribe. The Shia are a tribe. ISIS is a tribe.'
Yes. Right.
I mean, erk.
Where do you start with this kind of misguided statement? ISIS are not a tribe. Try 'Murderous bunch of apostate millennialist loonbars', and you'd be closer to the mark. But tribe they are not. In fact, they're very much an Equal Opportunities murderous bunch of loonbars, as they will allow anyone to behead somebody as long as they're of a Sunni disposition.
So are the Sunnis and Shias tribes? Er, no, they're sects of Islam, much in the same way that Protestants and Catholics are sects. Along with Alevis, Alawites, Wahabbis, Ba'hai........
In short, the ongoing wars of the Middle East are more on sectarian lines, yet even then that is too simplistic an interpretation. It certainly isn't however, about tribes ganging up on each other.
The speaker hadn't finished there, however.
Here's another little (vintage) nugget:
'In Yugoslavia, the tribes started killing each other there, and look how many died.'
Yes. Right.
I mean, erk.
I'm pretty sure the Bosnians, Serbs, Croatians, Slovenians and Montenegrins would not see themselves as 'tribes'. When it fractured after the end of the cold war, it split along spurious ethnic and religious lines - in particular between the Orthodox Serbs and the Muslim Bosnians. I say 'spurious' ethnicity because there's precious little evidence to suggest that any of the five nationalities is ethnically different - and indeed, they speak pretty much the same language!
So, a tribe isn't about ethnicity, or family, or language, or culture, or religion (which is admittedly as aspect of culture). Yet tribes, apparently, are a cause of tension, unrest, fear, destruction and death, at least according to the speaker I had the misfortune to be in the vicinity of.
The overall message that the person speaking was I think trying to get across, and failing rather spectacularly, was this: Tribes Kill Other Tribes.
No, they don't. People Kill People. Just because the person being murdered happens to belong to a different 'tribe' doesn't mean it's a 'tribal' thing. And instead of the negatively-freighted word 'tribe', why not use 'group' or 'gang' or, bigger still, 'community' or 'nation'? The speaker could have. After all, if 'tribe' just means 'a collection of people with more or less common affiliation of one kind or other', then that covers a multitude of sins, as it were.
And talking of tribes is so belittling - call them what they are. People.

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