On Saturday 13th May I, and three others, carried two five metre banners saying ‘UK stop supporting Bahrain’s tyrant’ into the Royal Windsor Horse Show. At the agreed time, when the prizes were to be given out after a show jumping event, the CSI5* Kingdom of Bahrain Stakes for The King’s Cup, we climbed over the crowd barriers and shook out the two banners, in plain sight of the royal box and the spectators.
A few weeks earlier I met with a handful of other volunteer activists. Together we looked up information on human rights abuses in Bahrain and the hypocracy of a situation in which our own monarch entertains and is entertained by King Hamad at the Royal Windsor Horse Show.
I had my own reasons for taking part in the action. The UK exports to Saudi Arabia are worth £3.5 billion and Bahrain is part of the Saudi led intervention in Yemen, where war crimes are being perpetrated against the Houthis and millions are suffering from severe food insecurity, famine. The UK targets Bahrain for arms exports, despite its repressive regime and violent response to protests and opposition. At the horse show, many of the events are sponsored by the Kingdom of Bahrain; the Bahraini flag is flying from the hospitality suites and plastered all the round the main arena and the fences. It turns out the King of Bahrain loves horses and so does his son, Prince Nasser. The instruction on the back of our tickets, not to display any political slogans, started to seem highly contradictory.
I was uncertain about doing this action; I wasn’t sure I knew enough about the victims of Bahrain’s repressive regime. The usual qualms sprung into my head: wrong time, exhausting, not my story. But, I reasoned, there was ‘no skin off my nose’.
The Royal Windsor Horse Show is full of shops that sell everything for the pony mad, from fancy snaffles to ear protectors. The clothes shops were strong on Harris tweed micro shorts and Harris tweed ponchos. The Landrover Discovery promotion offered rides up a steep slope in their latest model.
As expected, show jumping is thrilling to watch but this quickly becomes stressful. When the small Arab horses jumped over the fences, they seemed to spring off the ground like harrier jump jets. From our vantage point in front row seats, I saw that before each fence the horse was wild eyed, under stress, not concentrating, being reined in strongly by the rider and then let go at the last minute. Sometimes the horse would dig its hooves into the ground. The crowd would give a soft moan and an appreciative gasp as if they were on the horses side all long.
On the day, five of us, one pair for each banner and a fifth with a camera, met up at Paddington station. At the same time other activists were going to stand with a banner outside the VIP entrance. We kept up the motivation by sending ourselves photos and articles about King Hamad as we were waiting.
Seated as close to the front as possible, I was mentally rehearsing how I was going to clamber over the crowd barrier. We watched the DAKS Pony Club mounted games, where teenagers on ponies hurtled backwards and forwards with sticks, trying to grab rolled up socks. Very popular, at least with press photographers, was the Shetland Pony Grand National, where eight year olds raced tiny ponies round a track to a real steeple race commentary. By this time the stand was full; people kept asking if they could squeeze past us. Kids, couples with babies, families and pony mad little girls, spread across the bleachers.
Shortly after lunch, workmen put out a third row of barriers. Security guards in plain clothes arrived and prowled up and down, looking at their phones and peering at the crowd. It was time for the Kingdom of Bahrain Stakes for The King’s Cup. We anxiously watched the royal box for sign of movement, but no one vaguely royal or Bahraini looking came down. I wishes I’d brought binoculars. Instead there were groups of security guards in dark suits and sunglasses, right up at the back of the grandstand.
I put the banner on my lap. The plain clothes guys paid no attention to me or my partner. Prince Nasser appeared for the prize giving. The six contestants rode their horses into the ring to receive their prizes. Ok Now! I grasped the vertical rail and pulled myself up. Unfurled the banner. ‘Wrong way round!’ We quickly walked round each other and held it up. I pulled as tightly as I could. There were cries of hey! from the crowd, but the commentator never missed a beat. Then almost immediately I felt someone tugging hard. The Bahraini security guys were shouting in Arabic. I let go. Soon some regular security quards, heavy white men in blue blazers, came and started prodding us to walk towards the side. But there was no way out! Finally we were led out through the members enclosure. Through the shops. To the on-site police station.
Two of us didn’t have to give details to the police at all. We were led out through the gates and told never to come back. We made it down the road to the first pub on the left.
The Wednesday before last, early in the morning, I walked up the steps of the entrance portico of the Ministry of Defence, past the policeman on duty, into the entrance portico. I drew a stick of charcoal out of my pocket and drew a cross on column and then another. I walked in amongst the columns and then drew another and then another. The workers, their long coats hanging open, carrying their briefcases, were just arriving. One caught my eye and said, ‘What you as well?’ I wasn’t sure what he meant. It sounded like ‘Et tu, Brute?’ Men and women rushed past, as if they were late. It wasn’t even eight o’clock. Not that I was thinking about the time. I was trying not to be distracted by my surprise that no one was stopping me. I heard an iphone camera rattle. A woman was taking a picture. Was she going to write ‘This numpty…?’ Was she going to post it in MOD staff news, ‘This numpty thought she could tell us how dangerous nuclear weapons are.’ One woman tut tutted. And she’s the one tut tutting at me? It’s me who should be tutting. It’s me who should be kissing my teeth, as we say in Hackney.
The yoga teacher, a small neat man, with his neat beard and neat shorts who is as strong as a gymnast, well him, he said, ‘Examine which part of you feels made larger by your practice.’ That’s the way he talks this yoga teacher. On that occasion I would say it was my thighs.
After the action at the MOD, but also after Ash Wednesday in general, the part of me that felt larger was my heart. It seemed to have grown. St. Philip Neri had an enlarged heart.
Some of the participants in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, organised by Pax Christi, have been coming for over thirty years. They have been holding this problem, this sin, this collective, terrible transgression up to the light perhaps since the UK got nuclear weapons, or at least since the beginning of Polaris. At first I used to be a bit disappointed that not so many younger, or even middle aged people came, other than some school children brought by their RE teacher. But I’ve recently become a grandmother. So my perspective has changed. I know why it’s the older people who come.
Ash Wednesday is a good moment to think about these things. My whole day was devoted to Ash Wednesday. Having been told, ‘Well Done’ for the charcoal writing, by the policeman outside the MOD, I went home, and got marked with ashes myself in my parish church. ‘Remember you are dust’ says the priest. The smile on the familiar parishioners’ faces as they came out of church, the big damp gritty cross on their faces. It’s strange that being reminded I am dust is such a joyful occasion. All our wrinkled brows and wispy hair suddenly plastered with ash, brazenly showing our reality, that soon we’ll be ash. Or in the story of Nebuchadnezzar, when the three men walked out of the fire..
MOD remember you are dust. You have no rights just ‘bare existence’, when stripped down to it. Just a heap of Portland stone, carefully scrubbed of all the soot that you used to be covered with like all public buildings in London.
So as a peace activist, I thought it’s important to grow. As it’s about growing in love. It’s not so much about taking the moral high ground, saying something clever and devising a campaign, or planning incredible jaw dropping nonviolent direct action, although that would be good. It’s that the next step is growing in love. This is why peace activists are old. They have grown in love, they have grown old on the job, they haven’t given up.
Strange to think that my Ash Wednesday would have made me think that. Yes I feel uncomfortable with the after effects of the action. It’s humiliating in a way. To make yourself momentarily vulnerable. To put yourself at the mercy of the police.
Fasting, weeping, mourning, sings the prophet. Gather the community, even the babes at the breast and the lovers in their bedrooms. No one can be let off . No one escapes. Love for babies, love for lovers, love for our community. This kind of love is bigger than all of it. This is the kind of love, the blessings that will come, you have to get better at as you get older. It takes a grandmother or an aunty to do this kind of loving.
Raveloe, London, Kabul, we cling to our ‘way of life’ even though it makes us sick, obsessive and lonely. Governments cling to policies that cause harm to ordinary people. In this article, begun while staying in Kabul, I ask what George Elliott’s Silas Marner has to tell us about our own ‘pile of gold’.
I recently travelled to Kabul, where I teamed up with the Afghan Peace Volunteers and Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Nonviolence. I took with me, to read under the covers when I couldn’t sleep, Silas Marner by George Elliott. Marner, estranged from his home town, sets up as a weaver in the small village of Raveloe. Through weaving he accumulates a pile of gold coins which he counts obsessively every night, until one day it is stolen. The plot turns when he adopts a small girl, the daughter of a drug addict, who wanders into his house. He mistakes her gold curls for his gold coins, miraculously returned to him. As he determines to look after the child he has to ask others in the community for help and so his life is transformed.
As a group of women in one Kabul refugee camp recounted their experiences of war, their injuries, the indignities they have suffered since being forced to leave their homes, Kathy Kelly asked at one point, ‘Did you know that the US has just committed 617 billion US dollars to military spending?’ The women implied by their gestures, ‘What do we care?’ One woman said, ‘I wouldn’t know the difference between one side of a dollar and the other, whether a dollar is black or white.’ It was at this moment the image of Silas Marner counting out his pile of gold coins, popped into my head. As well as a literal analogy with the ‘pile of gold coins’ devoted to military spending, there are political lessons for policy makers, for example the western governments whose migration policies cause such hardship amongst refugees.
In Europe, chances for Afghan refugees to claim asylum have grown slim, since the EU now considers Afghanistan to be a safe country, even though there were 5,600 casualties of armed conflict in the first half of 2016 alone. The EU plans to deport 80,000 Afghan asylum seekers. At the time of writing Germany and Sweden have already started the deportations. This is at a time when Pakistan and Iran are also pressurising Afghan refugees to return.
The refugees face homelessness and destitution when they return to Kabul, where there is not the infrastructure to support them. ‘A man-made humanitarian catastrophe could be the end result of these governmental policies’ writes Ahmed Rashid, a journalist in Lahore. 
At the Borderfree Centre in Kabul, Kathy Kelly and I spoke to Abdul Gafoor, of Afghanistan Migrants Advice and Support Organisation. He says everyday twelve deportees arrive from Norway, as a result of its cruel deportation policy. Young boys call him, not knowing where to go. Very often, as soon as they have the opportunity, they will leave again, for Pakistan or Iran. They are given $1200 from the Norwegian government, so they use this money to move on as it is too difficult for them to reintegrate. There is nothing they can do in Kabul; there is no work.
Kathy Kelly, Nematullah Ahangosh, who is an Afghan Peace Volunteer, and I visited the ‘Police Camp’ an unofficial camp for IDPs and refugees. We took a long taxi ride, through heavy morning traffic, into an area of new development, where private hospitals with tinted curtain walling and new apartment buildings, some already clad, others just slabs and columns, lined the broad, unsurfaced road. Opposite a petrol station, where gaily painted lorries were filling up, we were let out onto the edge of an open sewer, the size of a small river, its grey white waters swirling with scraps of rubbish. Salim, from the Jesuit Refugee Service, soon fetched us and led us down a narrow path between mud shacks, to a place where we took off our shoes, stepped inside a small room, with red carpet, whitewashed walls, a stove in the middle, a plastic sheet for a window. Soon the elected camp leader, Raz Mohammed, came to tell us about the camp.
Of the 700 families resident in the camp, one third have come because of recent conflicts, such as in Kunduz in the north east of the country and one third are refugees who have been forced to return from Pakistan and Iran. Sometimes educated people, this latter group already sold all their property when they left Afghanistan, so now they are homeless and destitute. Refugees can only earn three dollars a day. Men work as porters in the market. Other jobs include washing cars, and selling boloni, pastries stuffed with potato and spinach. Others, despite the danger, send their children out to work in the street, cleaning shoes and windscreens or selling windscreen wipers, tissues and sweets.
Those who work in the market can bring home potatoes or turnips but not enough for regular meals. The rest of the time they have only bread and tea. Some don’t even have tea. For fuel they burn plastic bottles, shoes and old clothes. Every winter twenty-five people die of cold. Water has to be bought at 10 Afs for 20 litres. On the way in we saw a single pump. Raz tells us that a woman who runs a beauty parlour noticed the women walking to buy water so she donated the pump but the water is not ‘sweet’.
After speaking to Raz Mohammed we went to visit a group of women who were finishing a class. They sat round the edges of the cold classroom. A teenage daughter ran in to drop off a baby to be fed. The women told us that all ethnicities are represented at the camp. Tajiks, Uzbeks and Baluchis living together. They said they felt safe in the camp, but conditions are dangerous to health, especially in cold weather, and there is no access to health care, despite the private hospitals next door.
‘If only we had had an education we wouldn’t be in this situation,’ they said. One woman, feeding her toddler under her black scarf, says she used to have a job in Kunduz. She made boloni and her husband sold them.
Another woman told us how she had fled from Kunduz, almost leaving her child behind. Another, from Laghman province, showed us the injuries to her upper arm she had sustained when she escaped. She said that she had no food for lunch. After the class she would cover her face and go and beg at the bakery.
The leader said he gathered people together and went to the government for help. The government only provides food. He thinks they should provide education, buildings. He said the UN had been to visit the camp, even the US ambassador. But nothing has changed. Eighteen months ago, during Ramadam, the authorities attempted to clear the camp, with armed police, but the refugee inhabitants responded with stones.
Without sufficient food, fuel, education or health care, the women concluded, ‘No one cares about us. The government doesn’t care.’
Another group of women I spoke to were seamstresses at the Borderfree Centre. They embroider scarves which are sold in the US and the UK to raise funds for the centre. All having between five and seven children each, their main concern is to feed their families. Despite their husband’s disapproval, they have to go out to work outside the home. Even so the wages are not enough to pay the rent, to buy clothes for their children, food and books for school.
‘The government doesn’t care about us,’ they said, echoing the words of the the women in the refugee camp. They said, ‘If you want to help, you must give money to us poor people’. The seamstresses said they saw all the huge construction projects, and concluded the government was spending money on these projects and not on alleviating the problems of the poor.
Government ministers just use aid to buy each other ‘a cow or a hen’. I asked if they had any means of making their voices heard, which was translated literally I realised. They said their husbands wouldn’t like it if their voices were heard outside the home. Not able to read or write, their only option would be to join a protest. They didn’t dare go on a demonstration, they said, because the government might come after them, or there might be a bomb.
Back in London this week, I did my regular shift in the local winter night shelter. Many of the homeless I encounter at the shelter suffer from poor physical and mental health, and even have mobility problems, which should be reason enough for the authorities to house them without delay. Many were caught between losing their job and waiting for benefits to come through; a gap of six weeks is enough time to lose your flat. Surprisingly some guests are actually working. Holding down a job while sleeping in a shelter must be almost impossible but one man I spoke to was doing just that. His car was parked outside, he wore the uniform of a building servicing company and over breakfast he was giving his mobile phones a last minute boost, checking the location of the first job of the day.
The residents of the refugee camp in Kabul and the guests at the London night shelter are all at the mercy of government policies. Worse than that, our government is unwilling to correct the very policies that made people homeless. As John Berger wrote,
‘The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied … but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.’
Collectively, whether in the UK or Afghanistan, we must turn to the poorest, most helpless members of our society and learn, just as Silas Marner did, from experiencing community again.
Silas Marner, once he accepts his loss and turns to another, a helpless child, builds relationships with the other members of his village community. It is when he turns to another helpless being, and becomes helpless himself, that healing begins. Our governments, and therefore we, are addicted to unsustainable policies that keep many displaced and homeless. When we accept our own weakness, our own loss and turn to look after the poorest there is hope.
George Elliott also asks us to reflect on the nature of work. Silas Marner sits at his loom day in day out, even on Sundays, weaving linen for the well to do of the neighbourhood and collecting gold coins to no end other than to be counted and hidden. US taxpayers are paying nearly $700 million dollars a week for the military in Afghanistan, money which the US government spends without attempting to avoid corruption.
Reading this you might ask what do all these things have to do with each other. Visiting Kabul, not somewhere people normally visit for a holiday, gives a heady ride into geo politics, but mainly the opportunity to see the effect of government policymakers on the lives of the poor. You might think it odd I would use Silas Marner as a way to reflect on lessons from Afghanistan. George Elliott chose novel writing as a medium to comment on social conditions in her time and the novel has a lot to tell us now.  If you haven’t read Silas Marner, or not since school days, I would recommend a visit.
As I write this it is Gaudete Sunday. I am staying with the Afghan Peace Volunteers in Kabul, on delegation from Voices for Creative Nonviolence UK. I have been reading the daily scriptures throughout Advent, although Christmas seems very far away. Today I read this passage,
‘Why did you go into the desert? To see a reed swaying in the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in fine palaces. Then why did you go out?’
Listening to the sounds the doves make in the garden, at least I think they’re doves, it’s easy to imagine Mary sitting on her sack in the corner of her courtyard, unstitching another sack, ready to say her ‘Here I am’ to the angel Gabriel when he appears.
That was last week. Today the reading for today, the prophesies in Isiah speak to me as I prepare to pack up and return home. Why did you go to Kabul? Jesus asks. Was it to see the blue sky, the flags flying from the schools and mosques, the little birds puffing out their feathers in the bare branches, the heavily polluted river rushing by.
On the flight from Istanbul, there were plenty of rich people, those who could afford a ticket and who had passports, if not fine clothing. There are glimpses of people in polished four by fours, or the people who have built high bomb barriers and a sentry box for their personal armed guard.
I went there maybe to meet a prophet, maybe a messenger. I can’t say I had any religious experiences, clutching my duvet as I wrestled with anxieties and sadness at the days stories, feeling far from home.
In one sense the message from the prophet is very clear. ‘Make the ways straight..’ while there is such inequality, such as the basic inequality between the West and the rest of the world, rich and poor, while the US continues to use Afghanistan as a strategic outpost, while the world sees Afghanistan as’ a cow that every one can milk’, as one activist described it, it seems nothing much can happen to solve the plight of the poor in a country like Afghanistan. Many people we spoke to sounded hopeless and some desperate. These are obvious mountains and valleys; the deprivation that we’ve seen on this trip, where the number of displaced people rises, where some are so destitute they cannot even, as one camp leader put it, afford to buy tea.
Another way of looking at it could be the different kinds of mountains and valleys we all encounter. The message is one of the transformation that will come, when the paths are made straight. The other night we went to visit the home of one of the Peace volunteers. Gulham Hussein’s mother and his younger brothers and sisters. The family live in a traditional house down a narrow mud lined path, in one room, within a dusty courtyard, the well in the middle, the latrine in one corner shared by three other families. We ate spinach and rice, served with oranges to squeeze over and spring onions. As a baby cousin was passed around, dressed up like a miniature queen in her tight swaddling, as the stove lost its stifling heat the room became pleasantly cosy. The smaller children came and snuggled up next to us, their eyes like saucers as they tried to stay awake, watching the foreign visitors. Outside was dark and foggy, I felt a little bit of anxiety as to how we should get back, but really I hardly wanted to leave. I found it consoling to be in a family environment, to enjoy the fellowship , joyfulness at gradually being able to share a meal, admire the children, communicate roughly in translation.
The relation of this experience and today’s scripture, is it this, fellowship and crossing borders and language barriers that can bring about transformation, that can make the way straight.
One last post from the Calais Jungle, soon to be published in the LCW newsletter.
I met a young man in the Calais hospital, His heavily bandaged hand looked painful, He was sunk into the bedclothes, his skin grey. How had he hurt his hand? ‘Dougar’ he said. As one of the volunteers, a refugee himself, chatted to him in his own language, he brightened up a bit, realised he was being offered food, clothes.
The road to the port crosses over the entrance to the Jungle camp and continually there is the skyline of the lorries trundling left to right towards the ferry, to England. Any picture of the camp taken from a high spot in the dunes has this line of traffic on the horizon. Between the embankment of the road and the camp is a kind of ‘maidan’ where people play cricket and football. But this is also the place where police throw tear gas to stop people running up the bank.
For me visiting the Jungle camp was certainly biblical. Every morning at Maria Skobtsova House community I listened to the scriptures read aloud in English, French and Farsi. The voices cracked as if the readers realised the poignancy of the words.
As the self determined nature of the camp revealed itself to me, with its ancient seeming organisations and its communal nature, the bible readings became more and more alive. People there, I was told, were used to living in large groups. Even if they collected food aid in individual portions, they would put the food together onto one communal plate and eat it together, according to their custom.
While I deeply welcomed the daily readings and prayer in three languages, in the Jungle my faith was being tested, in the classic fashion. How can there be a god while such things happen? It was a nudging doubt in my head, that I’d never heard before.
Shortly before I went to Calais, I attended the refugees welcome rally in Parliament Square, with my daughter, my husband, friends and relatives. It is our moral duty, the rally said hopefully, to care for each refugee or indeed each person who comes to us in need. At the same time the media reported the death of an Afghan boy who already had permission to come to the UK, who was killed on the ‘dougar’, the traffic jam of lorries lining up for the port in Calais. I was shocked at the vitriol and anger on social media that followed both the rally and this incident, It made me think people are afraid. They are unable to cope with the idea of their duty to each refugee. And so they should be. People are afraid on both sides of the channel.
This is when Abraham, the father of faith, sprung into my mind. God told Abraham to take his only son Isaac up Mount Moria, with a knife, fire wood tied to a donkey. Many writers, Bob Dylan, Kierkegaard, Derrida have looked to this moment for truths about religion, faith, sacrifice. Derrida, in the Gift of Death, spends a lot of time looking at the moment when God stops Abraham from killing his son. It is an impossible moment, he says, neither present or future, not graspable. It is the moment when there is no longer an exchange. Abraham leaves oikonomia, the normal relations of home and existence, work, to take his son up the mountain. His son in which all his hope for the future of his descendants lies. God tells him to.
Simon Jones, a Baptist minister, who has been visiting the Jungle for many years, tells me people in the Jungle don’t think in terms of an individual life and death, or of searching for a better life for themselves. Instead it is a moment of seeking for life itself. It is survival for them but also for the future of their family, their descendants. Families or communities in Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan, Eritrea, places where existence – not daily life/job/mortgage as we think of it, but the very existence for them and their family – has become impossible. They see that there is no future. They send their children to Europe, send money, stay in contact through Whatsapp, just as Abraham collected the firewood, took the knife, loaded up the donkey to climb Mount Moria.
When Abraham lifts the knife, God stops him. Then God promises Abraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the grains of sand on the beach or stars in the sky.
Abraham was travelling looking for a place for his people. His only son Isaac represents his hopes for the future, for his people’s very existence. In the moment of sacrifice, when he raises the knife to sacrifice Isaac, he is following God’s orders. God speaks to him.
This is the terrifying moment when God speaks to us. An impossible moment of right now this minute, neither past nor future, according to Derrida. God is speaking to us. There is the moment between climbing on a lorry and not being on the lorry, falling. Through the deaths on the Calais ‘rocade’.
God is speaking to us from the ‘dougar’ and from the jungle camp. If we listen we will save our sons and daughters our brothers and sisters. Like Abraham we can stay the knife. This is Isaac on the ‘dougar’. God is telling us to sacrifice Isaac and rescue him both at the same time.
No wonder we are frightened. No wonder the tabloid press have debased themselves. I’ve spent enough time on the street handing out leaflets to know that when people come and abuse me, say ‘get a job, lesbian hippy’, it’s because they are frightened not of me but of the reminder that we collectively are doing something very, very wrong. They are just turning away their faces from what God is telling us, or not even God, but what the situation is telling us about ourselves. We are not welcoming; we are vain and greedy and selfish and lazy. Worst of all we lack faith. We are so afraid our government is building a wall, another folly, the trucks loaded with spoil from building the wall trundling backwards and forwards near the camp. We have so many different ways in which to display our lack of faith!
I remember Luke’s gospel. Each sparrow is precious, no one is more or less. Each one is precious to God. I can’t meet all of them. For us weaklings, we can only speak to a few people at a time, meet a few people at a time, however heroic.
The young man in hospital with his injured hand, becomes precious, come out of the sky mist, become stars. But I can’t meet all of them, Secours Catholique can’t meet all of them. Instead we need to have faith like Abraham.