Monday, 13 April 2015

The Pursuit of Happiness -The O'Shea Institute of Sociological Spoofery Comes Out On Gay Marriage.

* Everybody else has a Same Sex Marriage Referendum Blog. So Why Can't I?

"Is That A Girl or a Boy?" 
* Around the time I was leaving school and leaving home, two people that I knew took their own lives.

One was a middle-aged man, a friend of the family. The other was a young guy in my peer group, somebody I knew from around town, a quiet, friendly guy I would see at music gigs.

By the time it happened, I was already gone from my small city on the south coast. It was only years later that I really thought about what happened, and realised that both these men (well, one almost a boy) had almost certainly been gay. And they had looked at their lives in late 1980s Ireland and decided that they were not worth living.

But it was never talked about. Their deaths, the reasons behind them, the existence of gay people in our lives. I only really knew one Gay guy in our entire city. I hung out with him (shared an unhealthy obsession with The Smiths), but we never talked about why he, every weekend, he had to fight some twisted bastards who saw the blue streak in his hair, his clothes, his manner, and tried to pound him into the ground. I didn't really know how to talk about it and I think he didn't want to take the risk that I would stop being his friend. Around the time I left, he left too. Went to London to try and make a life.

It just wasn't talked about. It was never mentioned on the radio, on TV, in the newspapers. The first time I vaguely became aware of "otherness" was seeing Boy George And Culture Club on Top of the Pops and hearing my dad, like millions of other dads who witnessed the strangeness of that apparition, splutter; "Jesus Christ, is that Queerhawk a boy or a girl?".

It was only later that I found out that Boy George was working-class London-Irish. And as tough as that particular breed of people comes. Tough because he had to be.

My parents grew up in a cold, grey, utterly repressed and terrifying Ireland. I only found out recently that a Great Aunt, who helped to raise us, was forced to give up two children of her own because she was not married to the man she loved. They literally took the children from her in the hospital. Years later, she plucked up the courage to track down one of her daughters. When she went to her house, she had the door closed in her face. The shame was still there. On and on it went, down the generations. Those who could, left. Many who stayed endured misery and a kind of madness. Many - gay, straight, whatever, self-medicated via alcohol.

Ireland was a strange, cold place for so many. In 1990, in one of my first interviews as a student journalist, I talked to Richard Branson, who had shocked the country by offering condoms for sale over the counter at his Virgin Megastore in Dublin. Seriously, in the midst of the AIDS crisis, you basically couldn't buy condoms in Ireland unless you had a letter from your priest/doctor. Richard Branson is a polite, media-savvy man. But you could see he just wanted to shout; "What the F**K is WRONG with you people?"

For most of the '90s, I worked in a newspaper industry in Dublin that apparently employed no Gay men and women. Not one. LGBT people were invisible. Non-people.

David Norris. A Brave Human Being. And Great Craic. 
Homosexuality was still illegal in Ireland until 1993. It took the European Court of Rights and the fearless campaigning of a great Irishman called David Norris to force the Government to decriminalise it.

As recently as 2002, the newspaper I was working for had a front page "splash" - with Government Minister Brendan Howlin declaring; "I'm Not Gay!". There had been a whispering campaign against this popular politician, one which some say cost him the leadership of his party. So he felt he had to say it.

So on May 22nd, my country votes on Same Sex Marriage. The polls suggest the referendum should pass, though some are worried about the Irish habit of saying one thing to the pollsters and doing another in the voting booth. And there's Donegal, of course. Going on past form, Donegal may take the chance to bring back the death penalty or vote us into the Russian Federation.

Can't Argue With That 
But the vote is still very much in the balance.

There has been a loud, sometimes strange, often hysterical campaign against granting this basic civil right to Irish men and women. The veteran and respected journalist Bruce Arnold this week said we shouldn't vote Yes because we feel sorry for gay people.

Let that one sink in for a moment. "Banish your empathy, people of Ireland! It is merely a weakness of the flesh!"

The Catholic Church, once the power in the land, now grimly marching towards some dark, obscure place, says No.

The self-appointed experts say Say Same Sex Marriage will destroy the fabric of Irish society, lead to child abuse, compulsory gay adoption, cloning, cataclysmic genetic experiments in Leitrim, brother marrying sister and plumber marrying florist. Your basic frogs, blood and Elton John albums raining from the sky, scenario.

The arguments against Gay Marriage have mostly been high, wild and crazy. And have been shouted endlessly on the airwaves and in print by a class of people who up until very recently had total control of our society and yet now claim (in their newspaper columns and on endless TV and radio appearances) that they are a persecuted minority without a voice.

One leading politician and Noted Idiot said this weekend past that he was against Gay Marriage as he didn't want "any Elton John scenarios". We'll leave that one to future historians to work out.

What they are really saying - actually, screaming - is; "We are terrified. We once ruled this land. We imposed our morality on a cowed people. And now they are turning their backs on us, on Mother Church, on the old ways. We have lost our power."

Divorce didn't destroy the fabric of our society. Allowing gay men and women to live out in the open without fear of criminal prosecution didn't destroy our country. Giving them the same rights to marriage as enjoyed by the rest of the country won't either. You really would have to be in full flight from reality to think otherwise.

Rock On, Bishop Michael Burrows

Some people of faith have stood up for the Yes side. Church of Ireland Bishop Michael Burrows has said; " 'The rights of gay people have become, very properly, the great justice issue of our time just as the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women were in the past'.

Of course, being a Godless Protestant, he would say that. 

So I think back to those two human beings that took their own lives that year I left school. And the countless lives that were lived in misery, fear and waste because the Catholic Church and others has had such a bizarre obession/problem with human sexuality. With love, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Y'know, your basic Christian-values stuff.

I think Ireland has changed greatly. Since Gay people have been allowed to live openly amongst us, the famous, probably mythical block known as "Middle Ireland" has seen them for what they are. Brothers, sisters, friends, neighbours, sons, daughters, barmen, brickies, politicians and cab-drivers.

I think most people see same sex marriage for what it is. A basic civil rights issue. And more importantly, a Happiness Issue. We want our friends, neighbours and family to have that chance of being happy.

I think we will vote Yes with a significant majority on May 22nd because most Irish people will look at the real issues with clear eyes and decide it is the right thing to do. The human thing to do. And yes, the Christian thing to do.  

So hopefully, we will choose happiness. Knowing we were mired in misery for too bloody long. 

One final question - how could any country that loves the Eurovision soooo much (and guys, that's another thing we need to talk about), possibly vote against Same Sex Marriage? 

Think about it, people. And VOTE! 

***HEY, thanks for reading!*** 

Thursday, 2 April 2015

In Deepest Yemen - With The Heavily-Armed Hamsters

* A Few Years Ago......I went to Yemen by mistake. 
It may sound strange, but at the time I was writing travel pieces (still do, available for hire, cross my palm with silver). But being a freelancer, I was at the bottom of the pile when it came to press trips. 
There were three kind of travel junkets in newspapers. The first, were the ones you never heard about. You would just realise that somebody got a free fortnight in the Bahamas or Australia when the news-editor turned up after a being off with a deep tan. In January. The second, the week in Spain or Italy, went to the staffers. The third, the Weird Ones, went to us freelancers.
Yemen At Bottom Of Map
And so it was that I ended up going to Yemen. A place that is now in the news thanks to tragic events. The Iranians and the Saudis have joined in an already volatile situation - bombing and killing in a bid to find out which version of Early Medieval mysticism is the correct one.

And every time I hear about the conflict there, my heart sinks a little - because going to Yemen was an amazing  if accidental experience.

I took the trip on a last-minute, "Yeah, Sure why not?".

It was the weirdest place I have ever been too (and I talk as somebody who once bounced around the highlands of Uganda and Rwanda for ten days. AND trekked thru deepest Leitrim). But it was ....stunning, other-worldly. In parts, it was as if we stepped out of our Toyota Jeep and straight into the 13th century. 
And I did drugs with heavily-armed hamsters. AK47s and all. Talk about an Idiot Abroad.....
Me With My Bros - Highlands of Yemen
'You're going WHERE?" It was the standard and understandable response when I told people I was about to go to Yemen for some sight-seeing. There are places where we go on holiday (Spain, France, Italy), places we go travelling (Peru, Vietnam and Tibet) and places which, for even the most committed global wanderers, are fated to remain forever off the map. Yemen was definitely one of those places for me. The only thing I knew about it was that it was somewhere near Somalia (in the news then because of recent piracy in the Arabian sea) and Chandler from Friends once had to go there in a bid to escape from his annoyingly-voiced girlfriend, Janice. Also! Bonus Strange Yemen fact, English comedian Eddie Izzard was born there.
A quick Google later and that vast caché of knowledge had expanded to include: where it is (at the bottom of the Arabian peninsula underneath Saudi Arabia); some economic facts (very little oil, poorest state in the Gulf region); and a little bit of history. Yemen was the land of the Biblical Queen of Sheba (one of the rulers of the ancient Sabaean Kingdom) and was known to the Romans as Arabia Felix, or 'Happy Arabia', because of the riches generated by the spice and incense trade.
The Republic of Yemen is slightly smaller than France, has a rapidly expanding population of around 21 million, and many of them are daily users of a narcotic plant called Qat (more of which later). Yet even knowing all of this this could not have prepared ne for the culture shock of landing in the ancient capital Sana'a at 7am on a Saturday after a 12-hour flight via Cairo, or the hypnotic calls to prayer of the muezzins bouncing off the mudbrick high-rises.

An old Yemani Royal Palace - Made Out of Marzipan. 

It's one of the weird side-effects of 21st-century travelling. You leave your familiar surroundings in Dublin one grey morning and within half a day, you are standing, bewildered, in the middle of a crowd scene from Arabian Nights as women in full-length black sharshafs shove past you, with only their dark eyes showing through narrow slots in their veils. Sana'a itself, once you start to get your head around it, is a lofty 2,000m above sea level and appears, at first glance, to be the capital of one of the dustier planets from Star Wars (especially when the moon looms hugely out of the high desert sky). Five or six-storey mud brick buildings, with roofs and floor levels picked out in black, white or red stone and whitewash framed arabesque stained-glass windows, crowd inside ancient walls.

The Capital Sann'a - Mud-brick Sky-Rise

Like much of the rest of the country, it's dusty and crowded, weird and wonderful, and incredibly beautiful all at the same time. The Yemeni tourism ministry had arranged for a driver and a guide to meet myself and my two travelling companions, a young Englishman and a fiftysomething Englishwoman with a lot of experience of the Middle East.
"Hello, where are you from?" (the standard question from all Yemenis and one that we would hear at least 20 times a day over the coming week, there not being a lot of foreigners around). When we informed our guide, a local man who had lived in Canada, that we were "one Irlanda and two English", he made an executive decision. "It's better if you say you are all from Ireland -- too many questions about Bush and Blair," he said. Score one for the former colonies (Irish and Yemeni) and a week of stiff upper lip declarations of Gaeldom from my English travelling companions.
Of course, the fact that Yemen has long been on the British Foreign Office list of countries you should not travel to -- under the reassuring headings of 'Terrorism', 'Kidnapping' and 'Hostages' -- may have also informed our guide's advice. At the time we visited, there had been several incidences of tourist kidnappings. And botched rescue attempts by the Yemeni army. There was a long list of incidents such as the one in July, 2007, when eight Spanish and two Yemeni nationals were killed and a number of others injured in a suicide bomb attack in Ma'rib, 100km east of Sana'a. We could only travel outside Sana'a, with an official guide and, every 100km or so, there are army checkpoints that record your passing through and inform the next checkpoint down the line when to expect you. "If we don't show up in a couple of hours, then they will come looking for us," explained the guide, with the nonchalance of a man who was never going to be suspected of being a close personal friend of George W Bush..
Within hours of landing in Sana'a, we were going through our first checkpoint as we began our long climb up into the Haraz mountains. And after the exotic otherness of the ancient capital, this was where the great secret of Yemen was revealed. While the east of Yemen is classic Arabian desert, the western half is spectacularly, jaw-droppingly beautiful mountain country. We climbed from a high desert plateau into endless jagged mountain ranges, with every mountain top and foreboding rock crowned with a heavily fortified village that appeared to be made out of blocks of marzipan. Every mountainside is terraced in the style that would be familiar to people who have travelled through the former Inca empire in Peru. At the top of each mound rising above us were yet more impossibly beautiful castles in the air under milky-blue, Alpine skies.

The Village of Al Hajjara - very typical of mountaintop villages in Yemen

Our four days in the mountains went roughly like this: get up at 6am for breakfast, climb into the Land Cruiser, drive vertically for six hours (stopping off for lunch in fly-blown mountain villages), walk for two hours from one village to another over knife-edge ridges, then find a ramshackle guest house for an evening meal and bed. The hotels/guest houses were mostly primitive, but usually clean and very welcoming.
There were some hitches. At the mountain village of Manakha, the four brothers who owned the local hotel we stayed in played music and performed a traditional dance while we sat cross-legged on the floor eating rice, flatbread and spicy goat meat (which I love). There was a collection of dusty old rifles in the corner. I picked one up (an ancient British Lee Enfield), thinking it was an ornament. When I pulled back the bolt, I saw the live round in the chamber. My shock produced a few laughs from our hosts.
Yemani Man With Jambiyya - Pic BY Ashley Jonathan Clements

Now, no man in Yemen is ever seen without his traditional J-shaped Jambiyya dagger in his belt, in the way that our granddads would have never gone outside the door without their caps. And the traditional dance performed for us that night was, as far as I could make out, the famed 'Brandishing the Fearsome Daggers Under the Noses of the Terrified Tourists Dance'. But in a country where you regularly see guys wandering around the markets with AK47s, it wasn't that scary -- at least not until they picked up their rifles for the big finale. Thankfully, nobody was seriously injured and when midnight came, we retired to our bedrooms on the third floor.
And that was when the fun began. As well as the knives and guns, most males in Yemen spend virtually every afternoon chewing Qat, a mountain bush that apparently has mild cocaine-like affects. It's chewed like tobacco, which makes the men, chawing on huge wads of green leaves in their cheek pouches, look like heavily armed hamsters. I actually tried some with the Homicidal Manaka Brothers, sat in the room with about 14 guys chewing away for a while. And all it did was keep me awake for 48 hours. Which would prove to be a bit of a problem. Late that night, as we settled down to sleep, our armed and by now drug-addled hosts decided to put a fourth floor on the hotel, using a cement mixer, pneumatic drills and hammers. At about 4am, my fourth attempt to get them to stop saw me come as close as I ever want to be to starting a knife-fight with a tooled-up, drug-crazed dance troupe. I was standing there in my shorts, screaming threats at any man who picked up a drill. Remarkably fool-hardy given they had a stack of AKs next to the shovels.

All very colourful (and true, I swear), but not representative of a country where I always felt safe and the people were gentle, friendly and delighted to meet foreigners.

But there is a reason that people still live on the highest rock of the highest mountain. And men often carry around automatic rifles. A reason that we have been reminded of in the past couple of weeks, with the Saudis and Iranians (and all the rest of the neighbours) joining in the civil war to fight a proxy, sectarian war. The utter bastards.

So now Yemen is about bombs and terrorism. But when I see the headlines, I remember how, when I went into the highlands, a pocketful of cheap pens (the man from the tourist ministry told us to buy some in the capital) would win lots of smiles and Kodak moments from the kids who popped up from behind every boulder and wall.

Down With The Kids In Yemen
Unfortunately for those kids, Yemen was in no way ready for mass tourism in the way that, say, Dubai had established itself.  Despite having all of the scenery, history and culture that Dubai lacks.

Yemen is now a country in agony. And it makes me sad. Because it is just so unbelievably beautiful and interesting. 

It should be a world class travel destination. It is a dream location for mountain trekking, wild, spectacular, friendly and almost totally deserted. And in a world of increasingly jaded travellers, Yemen could be that rare beast, an unspoilt, unexplored desert and mountain paradise, travel Nirvana for the truly adventurous.

Or course, this is an outsider speaking. What really matters to the people there now is peace and stability. I hope they get it.

*Hey! Thanks for reading*