There was also a thoughtful petition by Human Rights Watch and English Pen as well as the campaign to boycott. I agreed to sign the petition but I thought and still do think there are much better ways to encourage free speech than by boycotting a literary festival. Emirates festival is the largest literary festival in the Arabic speaking world and I think we should be doing all we can to encourage dialogue everywhere but surely especially in the middle east where there are differing perspectives we can all learn from. Chris Cleave puts it a lot better than I could here.
Anyway, during the lead up to the festival a number of activists were tweeting to me encouraging me to boycott etc etc and i struck up a conversation on twitter with Ahmed Mansoor, one of the UAE’s leading activists who was previously imprisoned. We ended up meeting for a coffee and I was so shocked by his story that i feel obliged to write about it here:
‘the only thing clear in this country is it’s opacity!’
Ahmed Mansoor is an Emirati writer and poet who has a masters in IT. He did his IT studies in the US and on his return he was involved in setting up a discussion website in the UAE uaehewar.net (hewar means dialogue). The discussion threads that emerged were topics like politics, human rights, news from international media which is banned domestically. The website became popular and the UAE government managed to shut it down and imprisoned some of those responsible. Ahmed became more and more politicised by the actions that were going on around him that he and other intellectuals/activists initiated a petition calling for political reform. Five of them were imprisoned. He was detained for 8 months and the government ran a smear campaign. They were tried by a closed court which sentenced Ahmed to 3 years in jail and the others to 2 years each. Amnesty deemed the trial grossly unfair and after an international outcry the ‘UAE 5’ were released.
However after his ordeal he had a criminal record and his employer were forced to dismiss him. His passport was also confiscated in a raid on his house and has never been returned, his email and phone were hacked, a new ‘cyber crime’ law was passed by the government (which has been deemed unconstitutional) which means he and others like him will never have ‘security clearance’ and without ‘security clearance’ he has no possibility of getting a job. Then, all of his money ($160,000) suddenly disappeared from his bank account. The nature of its disappearance implicates not only the government but also the bank. When Ahmed was reporting the disappearance of this, his life’s savings, his car tyres were first let down and then his car was stolen… all outside the main court/prosecution building in Abu Dhabi. He was also twice beaten up and received numerous death threats which has made it impossible for him to complete his law studies at university. (He had tried to return to university after he lost his job)
So Ahmed is currently without his life’s savings or a job or a way to leave, but he says many are facing much worse consequences than he has. There are hundreds of political prisoners currently in jail without charge. Often they just disappear. People are terrified to speak out and face a similar fate. As Ahmed says ‘extremism grows when hope for peaceful change evaporates’ and i cant help worrying with him about the wider consequences of such extreme crackdowns.
Despite these stories there was so much else I saw in Dubai that seemed hopeful about the UAE. The festival itself was incredibly inspiring. The astronaut Chris Hadfield gave an incredible talk aimed at inspiring children into science and exploring the unknown and poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy made I call out to support womens day on the opening ceremony. I did school visits as part of the festival, all were very multicultural and open, one of the classes I taught had 110 children from an incredible 33 different countries, and the schools were some of the best equipped i have ever seen. One of my friends is an academic advisor working with institutions there and he raves about the enthusiasm of the young people and the set up that he works with. The country has developed at a faster pace than literally anywhere else in the world and has achieved an incredible amount in just a few decades. Hopefully the politics can be changed equally quickly.
Ahmed Mansoor won the Martin Ennals award in 2015
(Ennals was the first head of Amnesty International)
Through People Tree I was introduced to the really excellent Kumbeshwar Technical School I posted about them a little earlier here. Like Mahaguthi they support and train lower caste women and also men. They also support a large school of 260 and an orphanage of 19 children. I have been having exhibitions of my digital illustration work from time to time, i have been converting the files to screens and screen printing them or simply printing them digitally.
I saw the opportunity to collaborate with KTS. They make these amazing natural hand-spun Tibetan wool carpets. The carpet making process is quite similar to the pixel make up of digital images so as many of my images are quite flat with few colours so I had the idea of producing some of my designs as carpets. Together with Satyendra and the design team we found a way to covert digital images directly to carpet graphs which will hopefully make the design process a little easier.
Im really excited about the possibilites with designing carpets though, could be great.
I have just set up a new website for these carpets
I met up with the excellent Kumbeshwar Technical School here in Nepal, from their fair trade profits they run a school for 260 children as well as an orphanage for 19 children. They also train and run literacy courses for their workers.
For fair trade day KTS hired doctors/nurses/dentists for a free health check for the children, the workers as well as local people and children who are not in the school.
They also had a ‘meet up’ day for their knitters. The knitting that KTS produce is??done by the women at home in the villages so that they can can be flexible and remain with their children, so several times a year they meet up to share skills and get technical feedback. Each of the knitters knitted one patch of their own design and the whole lot was sewn together to make a pair of gloves. The gloves are sent to People Tree who may incorporate some of the patterns into their knitware and reward the knitter’s own designs.
You can read more about them and if you look at the rest of the site see (and order) some of the beautiful knitware products they make here
I am getting some carpets made at KTS …..will post something about that soon
I had heard about the fantastic work of Prof. Anil Gupta two years ago while teaching at Sristi College in Bangalore.
Professor Gupta’s interest is in sustainable technologies and remedies found in India’s rural fringes. Traditional technologies such as herbal remedies and other traditional and localised knowledge are facing a decline as these areas adapt to the globalised world. Local knowledge is often under-appreciated in these areas as they strive to modernise. The aim of the Prof Gupta and his team is to record and foster this knowledge so that it is not lost and can perhaps be utilised in new ways.
In addition to this work Gupta and his team are also documenting some incredible new innovations by the local communities they visit. Most of the communities visited by the team are subsistence farmers and use their limited resources in very inventive ways. Without anything other than the resources that grow naturally around them these farmers are living within entirely sustainable systems. There are some really interesting ideas for the developed world.
THE SHODH YATRA
Dr. Gupta had the idea of connecting and learning from these communities 12 years ago. He and his team tried to think of the best way to visit the isolated communities. In the end they decided the only way these places could be visited was by foot, the communities are so isolated that many do not have access by road, also these group walks of learning are deeply rooted in the Indian tradition which Gandhi had tapped into as his way of gathering support and connecting peoples. The Shodh Yatra was born, in Hindi it means literally ‘foot travel’ The first Shodh Yatra was in Gupta’s own state of Gujarat and since there has been a Shodh Yatra every six months. 24 in all so far in almost every region in India. On average 300 people, mainly farmers and academics but also a passionate and extremely diverse bunch of interested individuals from botanists to product designers from all over india and beyond come to each Yatra. Amongst the amazing people we met on the Assam Yatra were journalists, zoologists, architects, anthropologists and a really interesting amateur botanist.
Prof Gupta has set up the Honeybee Network, the idea is to ‘cross pollinate’ isolated communities with the other knowledge systems and innovations of their neighbours. He has collected so many innovations in the past twelve years that their database actually holds the largest amount of registered patents in the developing world. The idea is to use these innovations in a completely open source or creative commons way.
He has also set up the Grassroots to Global network to create business plans for the local amateur innovators to reach a global audience. We joined the Yatra at the Rural Volunteer Centre outside Dhemaji in northwest Assam. The RVC was set up by Ravindranath as an NGO to provide knowledge and training to local farmers. There is also a good article about Dr Guptas work in DESIGN OBSERVER here
I hope i can someday do some work for Dr Gupta. Very inspiring stuff.
professor gupta gives a talk at one of the villages