Vote-winning bill

September 29, 2006 at 10:30 am (Espresso)

The Senate and House of Representatives have approved a terrorism detainee Bill that, AP reports, prohibits “the severe abuse of detainees like mutilation and rape.” Thank god for small mercies. I’ve never had problems at US passport control. My former flatmate, a white, upper-middle class Englishman, however, was strip-searched, gloves on, the works. I told him he was probably stopped as part of their equal opportunities policy – ten camel-jockeys, one croquet player. Either way, we’re all for no mutilation and rape at Soul Bean and will vote Republican.

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Hands off Iran

September 27, 2006 at 7:21 am (cartoons)

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Artwork for Soul Bean by the highly creative blogger Aref-Adib.

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Fast-forward man

September 26, 2006 at 9:30 pm (Profile)

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The BBC journalist Jim Muir is currently in Baghdad. Before that he was in Scotland, stealing a couple of weeks’ rest after reporting the war in Lebanon — having just come from Iraq. For more than 20 years the Middle East has been his territory. From 1999 to 2004 he reported from Tehran where he successfully trod the tightrope of reporting the truth while not falling foul of the authorities. For many Iranians, his name remains as synonymous with Iran as Mark Tully’s is with India. Below he outlines why he still chooses to operate in life-threatening circumstances — why he doesn’t eat lamb and his favourite Persian nosh.

Do you not tire of working in conflict zones?
I have never thought of myself as a “war correspondent”, but as someone who covers places where conflicts happen to be occurring. In a sense, war became my default mode when I settled in Beirut in 1975, not knowing that a war was about to erupt, which kept me busy for the next 15 years. War takes you to the front lines of human experience. It also brings major changes. Telling to the world the story of upheavals and injustice is one area in which journalists can make a difference. So frankly, once you get used to that role, you feel that other, more peaceful, stories are not really “real”, and that you’re somehow copping out by covering them. My real passion is politics, and I suppose war is a very concentrad form of that, moving history on at fast — forward speed

Is the Middle East also a passion?
I do have a passion for the Middle East. I studied Arabic [at Cambridge], both reflecting and enhancing that interest. Funny that it’s called the “middle” East — it does often seem to be the pivot around which much of the world revolves. I’ve never seriously thought of trying to be posted anywhere else, as I fear it would seem second — rate and less significant. The Middle East does seem to matter

Tell us a about your living conditions — are you in the Green Zone? What is your philosophy for dealing with the unpredictability of the violent world around you?
Iraq is very frustrating journalistically. It is simply too dangerous — from the point of view of being kidnapped — to get out properly and spend time talking to ordinary people at random and finding out things at first hand, and to feel what people are going through. We get some of that, but nothing like as much as we should. We are not in the Green Zone, but of course we have to take precautions, which chafe. As for being hit by violence, bombs or whatever, we accept that risk philosophically in the same way as millions of Iraqis have to. It’s the kidnapping that’s the problem. These people are not messing about and your chances of survival once captured are very slight

What are your key news sources in Iraq?
We have a large variety — international and local news agencies, local papers, TVs and radios, our own stringers in various places, sources that we call up in the security and administration, diplomats… Because I covered the Iraqi opposition while Saddam was still in power, I also know quite a number of people who are now high up in the new government and that, of course, helps

What have you eaten in the past 24 hours?
For breakfast, a banana and a few almonds. Lunch, some leftover boiled potatoes. Supper is prepared by a cook who comes in the afternoon, so it’s our only real meal — today, lentil soup and grilled chicken with vegetables. Chicken happens every day. I wonder where they all come from… Sounds pretty Spartan perhaps — but I have introduced real cappuccino to the bureau and have made a bit of a fetish of it

Do you think audiences suffer news fatigue regarding events in Iraq? What is the biggest challenge in countering this?
Definitely there is news fatigue — endless explosions, piles of bodies. Sadly, when our local staff — a key element in the operation here — start telling us about reports of a car bombing or whatever, our first question is: How many dead? If it’s not lots, it doesn’t get on the air nowadays, simple and cynical as that. The challenge is to find human ways of bringing these stories alive, of personalising them, of making the audience really feel what it’s like to lose your child in a car bombing or sectarian revenge killing

When you look around you in Baghdad, do you fear Tehran might suffer a similar fate?
It hadn’t occurred to me in those terms, as the Americans are so obviously overstretched here and in Afghanistan already, that the idea of them trying to overrun and hold a much bigger, more complicated, and probably more resistant country like Iran, seems pretty inconceivable. Some bombing of strategic targets, maybe. But they know they have more than 140,000 troops here, hostage to the much more aggressive role the Iranians could be playing if they wanted to. That seems to me a pretty significant deterrent

Could you have foreseen when you left Iran two years ago, where it would be today — possibly about to be attacked by the US?

[The idea of an attack] was being mooted long before I left Iran, but like the nuclear story, it just seems to keep rolling along. The crunch keeps being averted. I don’t think confrontation is in the interest of either side, and I have a feeling (which may be wrong) that pragmatism and realism will eventually prevail. If you want to see what adventurism brings, look at Iraq. Who wants that?

Do you detect any enthusiasm for engaging with Iran among the coalition forces?
Assuming you mean hostilities rather than conversation, not much. I think Iran is seen as a potentially formidable opponent. The coalition forces have already got a lot on their plate, and don’t seem to be looking for more problems. They already blame Iran for a proxy role in some of what’s going on here in Iraq. I think they’ve twigged that Iran is a significant regional power with a lot of assets it’s barely begun to deploy

What is your favourite Iranian meal?
Now you’re talking. I’d start, a bit guiltily, with some smoked sturgeon, though it’s hard to find, but no caviar, as that’s really antisocial with the amount of over — fishing and poaching that’s going on. I love ghormeh sabzi, but with chicken as I don’t eat quadrupeds, with some mirza qasemi (not too much garlic!) on the side. For pudding, fesenjan (just kidding but maybe I can have some with the ghormeh sabzi). Washed down with ab anar [pomegranate juice], and Alka Seltzer… bliss

What’s wrong with eating quadrupeds?
I don’t eat mammals because I think you should only eat things you’d be prepared to kill and chop up yourself. I wouldn’t know where to begin with a cow — probably get involved in lengthy negotiations and let it off.

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Ahmadinejad makes point

September 22, 2006 at 7:33 pm (cartoons)

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Language thing

September 21, 2006 at 5:30 pm (England)

An American said to me: “You speak English differently to how we do.”
Yes, I said, it’s called iambic pentameter.

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An Iranian week

September 21, 2006 at 3:42 pm (Double espresso)

This week, Iran’s “humble” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the first Iranian spaced-out tourist. In a visit to the United States, he repeated his claim that the Palestinians did not perpetrate the Holocaust, and that Israel should in fact be occupying Germany. His speech to the United Nations general assembly was met my rapturous applause – by the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. Chavez also made a speech, while wielding a copy of Noam Chomsky’s latest book, America Poo. He in turn was met by rapturous applause – by President Ahmadinejad.

George Bush took to the podium and addressed the people of Iran directly: “Do you find you’re suffering oppression at the hands of your leaders? You need US aggression. Research suggests US imperialism leads to weight-loss. You will feel thinner and more confident – all with no exercise. We will cut off your essential supplies from the comfort of your living room and bomb your neigbourhood. All you have to do is Sit ‘n’ Weight. Call 1-800-desertcoon toll-free and lose weight today.”

Meanwhile, the radically thin Iranian dissident Akbar Ganja has written a letter to America the Washington Post: “Dear fellow Americans, please vote for me in the next Iranian election. I believe in democracy, freedom, and lots of other lovely words. And I need your help. The men who run Iran are naughty, naughty men. Gender apartheid must be limited to lavatories. Freedom for Palestine – vote Ganja.”

In outer space, the weightless Anousheh Ansari, has been updating her blog: “Mahatma Gandhi, that famous Indian cosmonaut, said, the best way to help the ‘untouchables’ is to go to the US, become super-rich and demonstrate the best way to spend $25 million. I hope that all the untouchables in Iran will be inspired by my feat. Up in space we have to clean our own latrines. It’s very humbling.”

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Mac friendly

September 13, 2006 at 8:36 pm (Profile)

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Soul Bean Café talks to the UK-based ITN newscaster, Nazanine Moshiri about impartiality, and Persian cooking

“Has my friend checked your bag?” the old security guard says. “Yes,” I reply. His colleague, a young Asian chap wearing shades, has indeed perfunctorily inspected one pocket of my laptop holder, not the one where the bomb is. A software quirk means the interview with ITN newscaster Nazanine Moshiri takes place on my mobile phone. (She has one too – identical. “They’re great,” she says.) We are an atrium café where, if you look up several floors at Sir Norman Foster’s glass roof at the news organisation’s headquarters in London, converse vertigo might take hold. Moshiri is exceedingly cordial, and relaxed.

My first question backfires, though: “So you’re into financial journalism”. “No that’s my sister [Mariam],” she says. “Maybe you want to interview her.” The air con seems to switch off. I apologise profusely. She is wearing white. Not very good at describing attire, but yes, light and white, smart, like my Mac, with its dinky camera, only it’s refusing to work.
“Have I got ten minutes?” I ask.
“You’ve got 20,” she says, generously, and gets on the phone. It’s a light row with a friend over an appointment at eight’ o’clock.

She leans across to examine my Mac; no airs and graces, she is ready to muck in. But it’ll have to be on my phone. The sound quality is poorer. And the battery low (when she asks for a playback I’m embarrassed to say the power might go. But she understands).
Moshiri left Iran for the UK when she was three, and grew up in Clapham, south London.

The 30-year-old did a post-grad in broadcast journalism at the University of Westminster and has also worked for Sky News. Moshiri hopes to become a foreign correspondent – perhaps in a role that takes her to Iran. She is even taking lessons to brush up her Persian. Moshiri “wouldn’t mind” working for Al-Jazeera and lists CNN’s Christianne Amanpour among the journalists that she admires. Shouldn’t hold that against her though. She’s hip.

View SBC’s clips:

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Blair v Brown: The lowdown

September 11, 2006 at 7:24 pm (UK)

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In an exclusive guest blog for Soul Bean Café, The Westminster Mole offers an insiders’ view of the ongoing tussle between the Blair and Brown camps


“A handful of ministers decided to write letters to Blair asking him to resign. Unsurprisingly, he said no and they resigned before the Prime Minister could sack them.”


The week before last, Tony Blair gave an extremely ill-judged interview to the London Times. He basically refused, again, to name a date for his departure and said that all those calling for his resignation should shut up and take him at his word that he’s going to go and leave ample time for his successor.

The Prime Minister said this after an unseasonably tough few weeks, during which he was seen by many to be offering yet more craven support for George Bush and the Israeli government during the conflict with Lebanon. To make things worse this all carried on into the parliamentary recess. Blair’s interview came just as most MPs returned from holiday.

They already had post bags full of vitriol about Lebanon from constituents of all political persuasions and the man responsible for much of this was blithely stating that any discussion about when he might quit was ridiculous and bad for the country (always a tricky one to float that).

Most MPs look forward to the summer being a time of intensive constituency-based work, a holiday of a week or two, and a selection of national policy issues that are little more challenging than whether Big Brother really has “gone too far this time”. When they come back from recess, they talk to each other. A lot. They do this because talking forms a large part of their job.

More bad press for UK foreign policy (synonymous with Blair), promising – yet, for Labour, hardly disastrous – opinion polls putting the Conservative opposition leader David Cameron’s popularity ahead of Blair’s (and his Chancellor and rival Gordon Brown’s for that matter) and post-vacation blues, reignited the Westminster village in a way that took any control of the news agenda straight out of Number 10’s hands. A crisis ensued.

For Labour supporters, this is where it gets really depressing. Again, to defuse things, the secretary of state for environment and rural affairs David Milliband announced Blair would be gone in a year. A handful of ministers decided to write letters to the PM asking him to resign. Unsurprisingly, he said no and they resigned before the Prime Minister could sack them. About 70 other MPs (enough to trigger a leadership contest) signed a letter saying that they were glad that Blair, through Milliband, had said he will not stay more than a year and that we should all get back to the business of doing what we were elected to do. It was hardly a ringing endorsement but it was a welcome post-holiday reality check.

The whole issue has been played out in the press as a battle of Blair v Brown. This is wrong and more than a little lazy. It is more a question of how and indeed when he is going to go. Everyone knows that Tony has become a liability and the game is up. He is supported by a group of loyal and noisy friends – just like the Chancellor – but for the vast majority of Labour MPs, regardless of who they are instinctively incline to support, the debate rests on when and how he should go.

Most of them realise that foreign policy has often coloured a reasonable domestic performance and although they are behind a revived Tory Party in the polls, the lead is hardly massive (nor indeed sufficient to gain power) and Cameron, whose deeply held regard for the way Blair operates could land him in trouble later, has no policies to speak of rather than going round getting photographed being nice to ‘the ethnics’.

Given all this, a descent into backstabbing and infighting (beyond the normal) is the last thing any MP wants. Gordon Brown knows this even though he came perilously close to looking like the Thane of Fife wielding the knife last week. He avoided this – just – and happily for him has almost certainly extracted a precise window during which Blair will announce his resignation.

This is about as much as he could have hoped for. The slightly resigned nature in which Blair was speaking at Quinton Kynaston School in north London last week made that clear. He even sounded a bit teary. Nevertheless, Brown is still mistrustful of the Blair hardcore who seem determined to put a credible alternative in place for next May (John Reid? too angry; Charles Clarke? too bitter; Alan Milburn? – Milburn’s friends wouldn’t even vote for him as PM). He also has to convince many of his fellow Labour MPs that what they have lost in Blair’s undoubted charisma and electoral appeal will be matched under his leadership. The challenge now is whether Gordon feels confident enough or, more likely, willing to hold a robust leadership election to exorcise the ghost of Blair and leave him with sufficient momentum to beat the Tories’ Blair MkII at the next general election.

This article was written by The Westminster Mole exclusively for Soul Bean Café

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Reflections on 9/11

September 11, 2006 at 3:12 pm (The office)

The life of a magazine sub-editor rarely gets more exciting than a plane crashing into a building. Drama in our job is usually a missing semi-colon or full-point spotted too late, or a misspelled contributor’s name, the closest subs come to terrorism. But on September 11 2001 we were all huddled around the TV on the news editor’s desk. The images of destruction in New York were so powerful that even in Farringdon, London you expected smoke to billow from around the next corner. My boss and I sat back at our desks. He mumbled something about Cambodia and how “America can’t just do what it wants and expect the third world to sit back”. (Although, to be fair no Cambodians were among the terrorists.) He, like the rest of us, was slightly concussed. I’d never heard him say anything political – we only talked about punctuation.
That day I accidentally placed two identical stories on to one news page, high drama on a normal day. But my boss understood – the mistake was clearly trivial given the tragedy across the pond.
“TV CHARTS TERROR” our headline screamed, slightly odd, but we were a broadcasting trade weekly. After work I took a long walk to my favourite Chinese restaurant in Soho. I ordered monosodium glutamate with aubergine and pork and hot and sour soup to cheer myself up. Then I plodded home and wondered about the futility of existence. I always do that after work, but this time I had cause. Thugs with piloting skills had managed to affect the world in a way no writer could hope to – I imagined Marquez thinking, “Why do I bother? Wouldn’t terror be easier?” Perhaps this is what recently inspired Martin Amis to examine the last days of Muhammed Atta.
Six thousand people were supposed to have perished at the time and the internet jokes erupted within hours. The best was an animation of the Twin Towers bending sideways to avoid the approaching plane. The worst was a map where in place of Afghanistan was a blue expanse called “Lake America”. I don’t know where I was when the war on Afghanistan started, or how many were killed by the US-led assault.
The US has since colonised Iraq, allowed Israel to punish the people of Lebanon anew and the Palestinians further, and has set its sights on attacking Iran.
Five years ago was I turning 30. Now, as I approach 63, I wonder if it is not better to turn rightwing in old age. Look at Christopher Hitchens, Salman Rushdie or Amir Taheri. Being allied to power is surely good for the old boys’ blood pressure. Edward Said railed against the system and look what happened to him.
Meanwhile, George Bush, the non-Islamic fascist, remains in charge and Osama Bin Laden is still missing. Where is the old life-coach for suicide bombers? If Iran is to be attacked, we’ll probably be told there, but I suspect he’s hanging out with my semi-colons and full-points

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Good news for Muslims

September 8, 2006 at 11:33 am (Uncategorized)

According to a report, 35 per cent of public transport users in London have admitted to changing seats to avoid passengers they think are Muslim. This is great news. Next time I get on the crammed 436 bus to work in the morning, I’ll wear my turban and count worry beads. Then, I’ll stretch my legs as everyone crams into the other half of the bus.

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