Thursday, September 29, 2005

Afghan ex-pats unashamed of Canada

Maybe it’s because a radical faction that has been accused of assault, stalking, e-mail hacking, and “thuggish lunacy” has risen to a position of prominence within Vancouver’s post–9/11 antiwar movement.

Maybe its partly because Vancouver’s main antiwar coalition has relied too expediently on “placard language” without first clearly thinking things through.

Whatever the case, Vancouver’s antiwar activism is quickly moving away from the broad base of support for Canada’s refusal to join the Anglo-American enterprise in Iraq, and it is jettisoning any hope of solidarity with Vancouver’s 6,000-member Afghan émigré community.

“I am sure there are no Afghans in that group. We would disagree with them totally,” says Ferooz Sekandarpoor, the 30-year-old Web-site coordinator with the Vancouver Institute for Afghan Studies ( “I might have agreed with some things they said about Iraq, but the Afghanistan situation, I don’t support their cause.”

In recent months, Vancouver’s Mobilization Against War & Occupation has quickly emerged as the most active antiwar group on Canada’s West Coast. Its strategy has been to increasingly conflate the Iraq war with what it calls Canada’s “illegal” and “imperialist” war in Afghanistan.

It was MAWO that organized the September 24 rally at the Vancouver Art Gallery to coincide with rallies across the United States protesting the Iraq war. It was MAWO’s massive banner (“Canada Out of Afghanistan! US/UK Out of Iraq!”) that was draped from the Burrard Bridge that day.

Organizer Shannon Bundock says MAWO organized 30 events on 16 B.C. campuses in the two weeks before the September 24 rallies, and has gathered more than 7,000 signatures on a petition to Prime Minister Paul Martin calling for Canada’s immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Sekandarpoor, who also works as the senior technical editor with an Afghan community program at Vancouver’s multicultural Channel M, says: “I bet that zero Afghans have signed that petition....99 percent of the people from Afghanistan in Vancouver, they support our troops in Afghanistan.”

Most Canadians are completely unaware of the great strides that have resulted from the Canadian government’s tangible demonstrations of solidarity with the people of Afghanistan, says Sekandarpoor.

“Unfortunately, the media here, they don’t talk about our troops and the work they’re doing there. Canadians are playing a big role, especially in Kabul. If they were gone for even two days the bloodshed would be back again,” Sekandarpoor says. “We are happy and very blessed to have some troops in Afghanistan.”

Sekandarpoor says Canadian troops were vital in providing security for Afghanistan’s September 18 elections, when more than six million Afghans chose from among roughly 5,800 candidates for positions in provincial councils and the national parliament. “This is because of the help from other countries. There is not censorship now. There’s lots of television shows. There is freedom of speech, and there is more freedom of speech protection in Afghanistan than any of its neighbours.”

Still, despite the undercurrent of division within Vancouver’s anti-war movement, there’s apparent consensus around one simple statement: Troops out, now.

MAWO’s core organizers include that “thuggish” faction that the more broadly based coalition expelled two years ago. One faction member claimed he was stalked and assaulted by his former comrades earlier this year, just for trying to leave the group. (See .)

But MAWO organizers dismiss the allegations, and they say they’ve put the falling-out with behind them and are now happy to attend’s public functions. is now maintaining an official no-comment policy on the affair, and both groups’ leaders routinely and publicly agree that Canada should immediately withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. cochair Derrick O’Keefe says his coalition has never explicitly endorsed the demand, but “troops out” is what’s members want, nonetheless. organizer Rick Gordon, a philosophy instructor at Langara College, concedes that a simple “troops out” demand might be lacking in subtlety, but protest coalitions simply tend to resort to “placard language.” Still, “troops out” is the consensus, and it’s based on the position that Canada’s presence in Afghanistan merely helps the United States wage war in Iraq.

You won’t hear much placard language from Inayatulluh Naseri, the 58-year-old co-editor of Ariana Marafat, a monthly newspaper for Vancouver’s Afghan community: “Most Afghans, including myself, believed that it was a big mistake for the United States to go to Iraq. But the Afghanistan situation is completely different from the Iraq issue,” Naseri says. “The Canadian troops are defending poor people who are not armed.”

Canada’s “illegal” and “imperialist” occupation of Afghanistan is carried out mainly under the aegis of the 36-nation International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a NATO-led mission authorized by several United Nations’ resolutions and welcomed by Afghanistan’s provisional government. The 36-nation multinational force includes such notorious war-mongers as Luxembourg, Latvia, Albania, Switzerland, New Zealand, Azerbaijan, and Iceland.

Canada has contributed 2,000 soldiers to the 8,000-strong ISAF mission. Another 250-or-so Canadian troops are working with the separate U.S.-led “Enduring Freedom” operation in Afghanistan, aimed at rooting out armed groups associated with the deposed Taliban dictatorship and Al Qaida.

The UN has instructed ISAF to cooperate with the Enduring Freedom effort, and Canada’s small contribution, codenamed Operation Archer, also includes a small contingent from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and aid workers from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Operation Archer’s primary objective is to build a provincial reconstruction team in Kandahar, which is expected to revert to ISAF control within 18 months.

But after you wade through the codenames and the acronyms and operational nuances, Canada’s savage imperialist conduct is revealed to consist mainly of providing security for reconstruction work, engaging in joint police patrols with Afghan constables, and helping CIDA implement its $600-million program in Afghanistan. The program includes providing logistical and technical support for women’s groups, carrying out landmine-clearing operations, reintegrating the 2.6 million refugees that have returned to Afghanistan since 2001, and so on.

Naseri says that a withdrawal of the 8,000-strong NATO force would mean a massive humanitarian crisis and the collapse of Afghanistan’s transition to constitutional democracy. “Peacekeeping means that you bring security and peace somewhere where there are people disturbing the peace,” Naseri says. “In Afghanistan, they want more troops to come.”

MAWO organizer Bundock says MAWO strives to engage students and members of minority groups, but “we don’t have a huge involvement from the Afghan community.” When pressed, she agreed that she couldn’t name a single Afghan immigrant who had ever been involved with MAWO in any way, nor did she expect to find a single Afghan on MAWO’s 7,000-signature troops-out petition.

Vancouver City Councilor Tim Louis, a high-profile MAWO endorser and keynote speaker at MAWO’s September 24 Vancouver rally, concedes that the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan would mean chaos. “The government would collapse in a matter of days,” he says.

On that point, he completely agrees with Sekandarpoor and Naseri. Nevertheless, when asked for his view on the Canadian military presence there, Louis replied: “Out now.”

Asked how he squares his contention that Canada is occupying Afghanistan illegally with the fact that the United Nations has adopted several resolutions authorizing the mission since 2001, Louis said: “I don’t have a coherent argument against the fact that the UN has authorized it.…Even if the UN authorized it, it would still be against the rule of law.”

An abbreviated version of this essay appears as my fortnightly Chronicles column in the September 29 Vancouver weekly, The Georgia Straight ( ).

For the complete program of Canada’s imperialist intentions, don’t forget to pop in at the Canada World Domination site,

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Auklets of Triangle Island

Triangle Island is a craggy and treeless eruption of
wave-battered rock that rises out of the North Pacific Ocean
about 30 sea miles west of the northwestern tip of Vancouver Island. Forbidding cliffs buttress a rain-swept plateau of hairgrass, salal and salmonberry.

In 1910, a lighthouse was built there, at an altitude of 210 metres. A gale carried off the lightkeeper’s dog, and the lighthouse closed down in 1920. When the beacon wasn’t hidden in thick fog, it was being lashed by hurricane-force winds, so the lighthouse was pointless. If you were close enough to see the Triangle Island lighthouse in weather like that, it meant you were going to die.

Triangle Island is one of the North Pacific’s most important seabird rookeries. Half the world’s Cassin’s auklets roost there. When the island suddenly erupts in Cassin’s auklets, and becomes obscured by clouds of tufted puffins and Rhinoceros auklets, it is like some great crescendo in an ancient orchestral arrangement that oceanographers, climatologists, ornithologists and fisheries biologists were only just beginning to piece together during the final years of the 20th century.

When they looked closely at the patterns in the vast ecological data sets they’d accumulated, what all those scientists saw was a kind of sheet music. It was emerging from records of sardine catches that the Chibo prefecture’s official diarists maintained from the late 1500s on the Japanese Island of Honshu. It was coming from fluctuations in anchovy abundances down through the ages, divined by analysis of sediment samples from the seafloor in the Santa Barbara Channel. It came from the close scrutiny of tree-ring widths in coastal bristlecone pine trees, and from the discovery of variations over the centuries in marine-derived nitrogen in lake sediments in Alaska, and the intensity of the Aleutian Low Pressure Index, Russian records of fur seal harvests, British Columbia’s halibut landings, and on and on.

We’d just come to a moment in human history when we were beginning to hear that strange and ancient music. We were just beginning to discern the syncopation and modulation of sea surface temperatures, the nuanced phrasing in wind rhythms, the adaggio of phytoplankton and zooplankton densities, and the fortissimo of seabird abundances.

“This is the great joy of science,” is the way Dalhousie University’s Boris Worm described it. He used a slightly different metaphor to describe what is happening now that the music is degenerating into a jarring cacophony. “It is like solving a giant puzzle and seeing the night sky in constellations for the first time, even as the stars are blinking out.”

If it is music, then the string section is falling suddenly silent. The woodwinds are in discord. A kind of madness has taken hold of the percussions.

The place Triangle Island occupied in the old music is a precise point between the movements of a great aria. The West Wind Drift arises from several gyres that move in great arcs through time and space, and it is at Triangle Island that those voices cleave into two great choruses. One sweeps north through the Coastal Downwelling Domain, becoming an ever-spinning circle around the Alaskan Gyre. The other turns south, through the Coastal Upwelling Domain, and becomes the California Current.

During the final 25 years of the 20th century, a great dissonance was first heard in global climate patterns. At Triangle Island, it was only barely detectable, a mere 0.9-degree rise in sea surface temperatures, but that was enough to shift the arrival of “spring” by several days. It was hard on the Rhinoceros auklets. It meant death for any tufted puffins that still hatched from their eggs in time with the old music.

By 2004, new and different sounds were coming out of the North Pacific. A southern species of zooplankton was blooming around Triangle Island. An exotic Atlantic zooplankton showed up, and so did thousands of Humboldt squid, a creature more common to the coast of Chile, rare off California, and never seen north of Oregon before 1997. Hake were swimming as far north as the waters beyond the Queen Charlotte Islands. Off Vancouver Island’s west coast, shrimp populations disappeared. The Fraser River’s sockeye runs collapsed.

The broken rhythm of the ocean’s climate patterns was now upon the land. In 2003, spruce beetles had devoured 95 per cent of the spruce forests on Alaska’s Kenai peninsula, covering an area twice the size of Yellowstone Park. There were bark beetles and pine beetles, and in British Columbia they swept through an area the size of England, and jumped the northern Rockies. The continent’s great northern boreal forests lay before them.

Beetles were eating forests as far away as Wyoming and New Mexico. Southern California burst into flames. Puccini gave way to Wagner, and Wagner gave way to noise, and in the springtime of 2005, back on those forbidding cliff faces 30 sea miles west of the northwestern tip of Vancouver Island, an adult population of 500,000 Cassin’s auklets was settling down to roost.

Most of the birds failed to lay eggs. The eggs they did lay failed to hatch. Those that hatched died. You could say the stars were blinking out in the night sky, or you could say the music stopped. But the seas were erupting in a sudden fury, just when we were close enough to make out the lighthouse at Triangle Island.

Ancient Rythms, by Terry Glavin, in Adbusters, November - December 2005

Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Valley of the Black Pig

The fields and the stones argue amongst themselves about which of their stories is right and best, but all the old stories appear to agree on one thing. Gráinne was a high-born woman who became inconsolable and drowned herself in a little lake up above Feakle after learning she had been conceived of a sunbeam and would never know the world of mortal men.

Being mere mortals, when we pull away at the vines of our limited understanding of the sum of all living things, we still find the moss-covered foundation of Aristotle’s scala naturae, and the fading inscriptions chiselled by the 17th century Lutheran medical student Carl von Linne, who gave us our system of taxonomic nomenclature, which he called the systema naturae. Nowawadays, the whole edifice is crumbling. Entire families of species emerge from the mud, as though summoned by Zeus, or disappear forever, as though extinguished by the impact of a Cretaceous asteriod. Sometimes they vanish out of the known world, and sometimes they vanish owing to the mere publication of papers in such scholarly periodicals as the Journal of Heredity.

But the world of mere mortals can never be a world made up of species that fit neatly into their own genus, family, order, class, phylum, kingdom and domain. The mortal world is also made up of stories. That’s the first thing you notice when you walk through the East Clare hills. A single narrative template is not so easily imposed on the land. Each townland is its own piece of a quilt. Within each townland there are fields. Each field accounts for itself in its own way, in its own stories.

The little field beside the farmhouse is Carrigrua, the Red Crag. Across the boreen from Carrigrua is the Big Hollow. Above the Big Hollow is Hogan’s. Then there’s the tillage field, the old milking shed, and beyond the tillage field is Flanagan’s. Jack Brian’s field is all covered in whitethorns and holly and blackthorns, and it’s also called the Fairy Field because within it there is a rath, which is a ring fort, one of those circles of stones where people used to see faint lights dancing on certain nights of the year. The holy well at Tobar Coolan is for sore eyes, but the one at Ballyquinbeg is for sore bones, and the well at Saint Senan’s is for headaches, and there is blackberry and hazelnut and plum and wild apple among and between everything.

For all its splendid and flourishing and elaborately interconnected profusions of life, the earth is also a tomb, and the dead breathe their stories out of the ground.

An Afternoon With The Lads

Langmeang is a remote village of about 1,200 people in the Chompang Mountains, at the end of a deeply rutted track that roadbuilders punched through in the 1980s. The arrival of a Tata Sumo jeep with some faraway Nagas and a white man one late afternoon, with a red sun sinking behind the mountains in the west, was a pretty big event.

We were immediately surrounded by about 150 laughing and cheering children, and they escorted us up to the highest ridge in the village, where the main morung stood in the shade of a remnant copse of yunchuk trees and lok trees. In the morung courtyard, an informal gathering of the village elders was underway. The old men sat quietly, with smiles showing through the broad zig-zag tattoos on their faces. They were all seated around an open fire, beside a large obelisk and a stone altar. It was as though we had been expected.

The 32-year-old Angh of Langmeang, Dujai, happened to be seated with the old men. We exchanged greetings through my translator Khrienuo, in Nagamese. Straight away, Dujai said something to a little boy, who ran off and returned a minute later with a flashlight. Then the boy and two of his companions gestured in a way that indicated I should go inside the morung. A cheer went up among the old men.

The dark entranceway into the longhouse was decorated with mithun skulls and stag antlers. There were deeply-sculpted carvings of animals in the roof beams, and in the morung’s huge support posts, but I couldn’t make out what they were. The boys brought me into a small chamber, a sort of an anteroom. In the pitch dark behind a bamboo screen, the flashlight beam illuminated an open sarcophagus filled with human skulls.

Part Prague 1968, Part Chicago 1932

The City of Khabarovsk is a decaying but strangely genteel place. Among its tree-lined boulevards are huge tracts of ramshackle apartment blocks and loghouse-style frontier buildings with exotic onion-domed roofs, all jumbled together on a series of hills overlooking a broad reach of the Amur River.

The city is the capital of the sprawling territory of Khabarovsk Krai, and home to about 750,000 people. It’s closer to Vancouver than it is to Moscow, and it lies on almost exactly the same latitude, so its climate is more forgiving than that of most Russian cities. They say Khabarovsk is at its best in the early spring, during the week that begins with the old Soviet high holy day of May Day and ends with Victory Day, which commemorates the Great Patriotic War, as Russians call the Second World War. Most people try to take the week off, and they trundle back and forth from their dachas and vegetable plots out in the countryside, and the schools and universities are mostly closed. There are concerts and marches are parades, and there’s a good deal of vodka-drinking involved.

As it happened, we’d arrived in Khabarovsk that very week, and although it’s a city of dreary Stalin-era office complexes, monuments to Bolshevik martyrs, and dirt-road ghettos where the Gypsies live, there are also grand old Orthodox cathedrals, sprawling parks, museums and galleries. A statue of V.I. Lenin still gazed out over Lenin Square, and City Hall was still on Karl Marx Street, but there was a liveliness about the place. It was partly because of the city’s multi-ethnic hodgepodge, and partly because there were still 19 functioning colleges, institutes and universities within a short, rickety tram ride from downtown. It was a bit of Prague in the 1960s, and Chicago in the 1930s. There were sidewalk cafés everywhere, where college students engaged in animated conversations, but there were also hordes of grim-faced young men in crew cuts and black leather jackets, loitering on streetcorners or climbing in and out of flashy black limousines with smoked-glass windows.

The downtown streets were alive with buskers playing accordions and violins. Hawkers were plying their trade at vegetable stalls and impromptu kiosks, selling milk and soft drinks and chocolate bars, and the magpies were building their nests in the trees. Children were playing in the parks, and lining up in disorderly queues for reindeer rides and pony rides, and one morning in the Central Hotel, a crackerbox palace of crumbling plaster and broken elevators overlooking Lenin Square, I was awakened at dawn by a deafening noise outside my window. It turned out to be the sound of dozens of Russian tanks, troop carriers, and mobile missile launchers streaming through the city’s streets.

A View Over Arab Street

In Singapore, I found regular solace at the In The Name Of Allah The Most Gracious The Most Merciful Mohd Rajeen & Brothers Café, a happy little establishment in Arab Street.

The Muslim quarter is one of the only places left in Singapore that feels and behaves like a real place. Apart from a handful of neighbourhoods that have managed to somehow retain the old Malay “kampong” village atmosphere about them, Little India and Chinatown are the only other significant districts in all of Singapore where some authentic local sensibility can be found. The rest of the city has been adequately described by the celebrated Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who described Singapore as a place devised by “pure intention: if there is chaos, it is authored chaos; if it is ugly, it is designed ugliness; if it is absurd, it is willed absurdity. Singapore represents a unique ecology of the contemporary.”

With its cheek-by-jowl high-rise office towers, its vulgar residential complexes, its surfeit of American fast-food franchises, multinational corporation branchplants and off-the-shelf urban architecture, Singapore has been subsumed within the dreary homogeneity descending upon the cities of the world. By the end of the 1990s, most of Singapore’s buildings were less than 30 years old. It is a city that is difficult to describe because it is so much like everywhere else. Even Singapore’ s oldest and largest graveyard, the venerable Bidari Cemetery, was recently bulldozed to make more room for urban development.

In 2004, William Lim, a leading authority on urban development and architecture in South East Asia, described Singapore as a place where urban planners have “systematically removed and destroyed unprotected city areas and historical sites that had acted as containers of history, values and cultures.”

A lot like Vancouver, in other words.