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Only in Zimbabwe …

Nice mustache ... how long were you in the South African Police Force?

I have just returned from a wonderful trip home to Zimbabwe where things have certainly improved since the economy was dollarised — although everyone would rather the country had adopted the rand instead of the greenback, since all imports and exports go via South Africa anyway.

While back home I decided — much to the amusement of friends and family — to brave the vagaries of Zim bureaucracy try to get a replacement for my long-lost driver’s licence. Joining me on what promised to be a Kafka-esque experience was an old friend, Micheal Scott, who also wanted to try to get a duplicate.

For $10, we had three black and white pictures taken from a photo studio opposite the dreaded Central Vehicle Registry before entering its hallowed doors, and were steered by a concierge-type person to an unpromising looking side room.  First impressions were not good: the room looked as if it hadn’t had a lick of paint since independence in 1980,  the benches were grooved by the indentations of tens of thousands of buttocks that had endured lengthy waits and there was only one duty person, sitting regally behind a perspex screen with a speaking hole placed  (deliberately, probably) at an angle that forces the petitioners to almost supplicate themselves.

Mike and I were told to fill in a form that asked all sorts of questions I couldn’t answer. All I knew was that I had obtained my learners licence in Bulawayo in 1978, whereas Mike had the date of issue of his, the original number and, most importantly, his national ID card number — something I had never go around to obtaining.

The clerk pointed out the paucity of information on my form before handing both to a supervisor in an office behind him who then left with our forms. Surprisingly, less than 10 minutes later she was back, and handed the forms back to the original clerk.

He summoned Mike and then, in full baritone clearly audible to everyone said: “You have asked for a duplicate licence, but you applied for one in 2000 that you have never collected” and proceeded to produce the said document much to our stupified amazement. Sure enough, from somewhere in the bowels of the central registry, they had  found a duplicate licence that Mike had asked for 10 years ago. “You don’t need a new one now and this one has already been paid for,” said the clerk.

“Now Fox,” said the clerk. “You also want a duplicate but you applied for a replacement in 1983 … here it is,” and with a theatrical flourish this time produced my licence. No need to pay.

At this point Mike and I were reduced to a pair of giggling schoolboys. For all the woes that Zimbabwe has endured over the years, I can’t think of another country where this would happen. In 1983, when I applied for the replacement, I was working at the Bulawayo Chronicle. (The mustache in the picture makes me look older than my 21 years but devillishly handsome, don’t you think …).

I am still amazed that it survived for 27 years in the archives of the Central Vehicle Registry but it makes me think that despite the best effort of Mugabe and his cronies to destroy everything that worked in Zimbabwe, there is still something to build on when he goes.

As an addendum, my brother found my dad’s last driving licence — issued in 1977 when he was 40 and the country was still Rhodesia. They say the acorn never falls far from the tree …

Chip off the old block ... Jason King last seen in Bulawayo circa 1977.

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Religion on TV: Opiates of the masses

Dr Zakir Naik ... myths understood

The local cable company in Kabul carries Peace TV, a noble effort to spread the word of Islam and correct misunderstandings about the religion. I find it seductive viewing, but like Fox News or porn, you can only watch about 15 minutes before you start channel surfing. A bit of Internet “research” shows that it was founded by Zakir Naik, an Indian who trained as a medical doctor but has spent much of his adult life as an Islamic preacher, following in the tradition of his hero, the South African da’wa exponent Ahmed Deedat.

There is no doubt he attracts huge crowds; his Islamic Research Foundation, the front for all his activities, has become big business on the sub-continent, in the Middle East and beyond the Islamic world to Europe and North America. He comes across no differently to the scores of oily televangelists that saturate American airwaves, with an ego that requires a personal TV channel to feed it.

In fairness he is not the only “preacher” to feature on Peace TV. There many others — including converts from Britain and the United States — but he is the one doing the continuity breaks between programs, striking stern poses to a backdrop of significant international events and helpfully quoting Koranic verses that he says means if viewers send him money, Allah will consider it “zakat”, a tithe that forms one of the five pillars of Islam.

Naik is considered by his fans to be a brilliant debater — and there is no doubt he knows his Koran, Bible and Torah inside out — but many of the programs are repeats of lectures on comparative religions he has given over the years. He is frequently introduced by his brother and preceded by some Koranic readings from his son (it is a family affair, after all…) and then he drones on, quoting chapter and verse from the relevant holy book, to argue why Islam is the one true religion of which both Judaism and Christianity foretold — if only you look closely enough.

For a dyed-in-the-wool atheist like yours truly, it is like listening to someone debate whether Batman, Spiderman or Superman is the greatest superhero, so the petty point-scoring over which particular fairytale is the most believable comes across as very immature — the sort of thing we were doing for a mental challenge at high school. He also has a shocking lisp and for some time I thought he was saying “myths understood” when in fact he meant “misunderstood”.

I was slightly inspired to write this by a friend who recently started an exciting magazine in southeast Asia called Aquila that is aimed at modern Muslim women and the challenges they face.

Don't judge a burqa by its cover

She, a thoroughly modern Muslim woman herself, posted a link to a great story that got a lot of international play about a Malaysian “American Idol”-style show to find the next star young imam — someone who might have a better connection with the younger generation, but who can pass on the message in a modern way without compromising values. The show provides both the message and the means to deliver it in a manner that embraces the global craze for reality-style TV .

The magazine and TV show are doing the same thing, in their own ways, but I was struck by how different their approach was to that of Peace TV, which remains conservative in both message and medium.

Aquila would horrify Dr Zakir Naik. If he had his way, entertainment would consist only of programming that had a religious or moral message. Entertainment is a distraction — much like women are — and have no place in an Islamic world.

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Facebook ads — eerily accurate?

I’ve never really noticed avertisements on Facebook and it strikes me that must be a major reason for its success. I am aware, however, of debate about Facebook allowing private data (such as keywords etc) to be used for advertisers to target specific audiences.

So it was struck earlier today when I noticed, for the first time, a series of adverts on the right hand side of my page, and wondered what they say about me.

Currently in prime place is an advert for the PAP, reminding me, in case I had forgotten, how the party is serving the people of Singapore.

Directly below that is one that seduces me with the line “Date Ladies in Singapore” while immediately below that another advert offers “84% off IPL hair removal”.

So clearly the advertisers think I’m interested in a politically astute single Ah Lien or Mina who keeps a tidy garden…

Spot on, actually!

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Dubai terminal 2

Aid workers travelling to Gheshm said the country was suffering an accute shortage of vowels

Dubai’s terminal 2 is the gateway to Satan’s bottom.

Unless you’ve had a reason to visit Baghdad, or Kabul, or Baku or Kish or any one of a dozen similar places that will never appear on a list of top tourist destinations, chances are you’ve never heard of Dubai’s terminal 2.

You look at the departure board in Terminal 1 and you see flights leaving for London, or Sydney, or Singapore or any one of dozens of comforting destinations. Look at the departure board of Terminal 2 and you see places you wouldn’t send your worst enemy — he’s there already.

You actually have to leave the airport to get from Terminal 1 to 2. There is allegedly an internal transfer, but I’ve never found it. So after leaving the cosmopolitan transit hall of 1 via possibly the world’s most expensive taxi ride, getting your passport stamped in and out, you end up in the strange place that is Terminal 2.

You can’t stop yourself from weighing up your fellow travelers.  Many are returning nationals, some clearly novice travelers, in mufti and with luggage made up mostly of heavily wrapped red, white and blue bundles — the Gucci for pilgrims.

It is definitely the terminal to Islamic destinations, and many of the passengers are outwardly Muslim, but there is also a representation of the former Soviet central Asian states in bad shiny suits and imitation Italian loafers.

Terminal 2 used to be not much more than a glorified hangar. but its been upgraded and now boasts a duty fre shop and a McDonalds — the last Big Mac for thousands of miles. Most of the customers are American contractors on nation-building exercises, many of them ex-armed forces and now working in security, and they buy burgers by the dozen to take with them — takeout to be delivered thousands of miles away.

Last burger before Baghdad .. . make mine a large portion of freedom fries

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A braai in Afghanistan: S14 semis, 2010

Kabul ... either dusty or muddy, take your pic.

An old schoolmate, Rob Cochrane, put me onto a colleague of his at a private security company that does protection for projects in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where international forces are too stretched to handle themselves.

Many of the contractors are ex-special forces from around the world, but Rob’s colleague came from a different route — he was an ex-Kiwi cop who was in their top SWAT-like unit but also a rugby player of some note. Dustin Watts is a big Kiwi bloke, probably not a pound heavier than when he was top of his game playing for the ill-fated Vikings before a spell in Ireland as player-coach of a club side.

The braai was held in a residential compound run by and for the security guys. Some of them lived with their clients, but the compound also serves as offices and a sort of guest house for people coming and going between contracts.

It has a very well-organised (and cheap)  bar for staff and their guests, and it is in a pleasant green garden — an oasis from the dust of Kabul.

There are about 20 or so people at the braai — almost all South Africans and fairly split between Bulls and Stormers fans — in other words, a lot of Dutchmen! They rose to the occasion, delivering an awesome braai of fantastic boerewors, whole fillets, lamb chops and  accompanying egg-potato sludge and green stuff.

The gathering was slightly muted by recent news that a couple of colleagues had been killed in a plane crash of a private domestic carrier Pammair.

Rescue workers and soldiers search for the remains of victims in an Afghan plane crash on Shapiri Ghar Mountain, 20 miles east of Kabul. The Kam Air Boeing 737 crashed on February 3, 2005 killing all 104 people on board. Pic: Fardin Waezi

Nobody has confidence in any Afghan airline and you try to find alternative means, but sometimes it is unavoidable. Testimony to the remoteness of the routes you fly in Afghanistan is the fact it took rescue workers four days to even locate the wreckage of the plane, which came down less than 100 kms north of the capital in the Hindu Kush.

I thoroughly enjoyed the match. The Crusaders were let down by nerves under the high ball, but the Bulls capitalised ruthlessly and owned the game from begining to end. In full flow they are impressive.

I didn’t stay for the second game, but I know the Stormers fans will be happy with the result.

So I’ll see them again this weekend for the showdown!

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A book recommendation

I can’t recommend this highly enough “Where men win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman” by John Krakauer, who also wrote the brilliant Everest book “Into thin Air”.

For those who don’t know the story, Pat Tillman was a professional American Football player with the Arizona Cardinals who gave it all up in the aftermath of Sept. 11 when he enlisted (with his professional baseball-playing brother) in the U.S. army rangers.

He served in Iraq before being deployed in Afghanistan (with his brother Kevin) where he was killed in what the U.S. military said was a contact with the Taliban but, after a terrible cover-up, it emerged was friendly fire.

Pat and Kevin Tillman in Saudi Arabia

Tillman had it all — a handsome, gifted athlete well loved by his wife, family, friends and fans — but using Tillman’s diaries and exhaustive interviews, Krakauer paints a picture of a young man who is an intelligent, deep thinker, strongly anti-Bush and his administration, a staunch atheist and very much against the Iraq war.

Nevertheless, he had joined the army to do service for his country. He never gave a single interview about his shock switch and he refused to accept the hero status that the authorities thrust on him and tried so hard to capitalise from.

It was an ironic scandal that the authorities tried to gain from Tillman’s death and a credit to his family that they refused to allow this to happen.

The strange-but-true aspect of the Tillman story is that while serving in Iraq, a war that deeply troubled him, he was part of the special forces operation that “rescued” Private Jessica Lynch, that poor girl who wandered into a shit storm and was “kidnapped” before being rescued in full technicolour by an administration desperate to paper over the deadliest day in the entire war for the Americans, with almost all the casualties coming from “friendly fire”.

It still amazes me that Rumsfeld and his cronies survived the fall out from that. They portrayed Lynch as a heroine who had gone down fighting before being badly injured and kidnapped by Iraqi troops or militia. The truth was her injuries, which were severe, had come from a humvee crash and she had been taken to a civilian hospital where she had been treated kindly, with some staff even donating blood for a transfusion. She she started recovering, the Iraqi medical staff put her in an ambulance and tried to drive her to American lines for better treatment, but they had to turn back when they were fired on by a U.S. checkpoint.

The raid to rescue her was ridiculous — there was simply nobody holding her. Tillman writes in his diaries about how he was disquieted by the whole affair. He would have gone mental at the lies the spun around his death.

I can’t recommend the book enough — even for those who are very much against Washington’s foreign adventures and, like me, are likely by instinct to dismiss Tillman as a naive, typical gung-ho American.

I expect a hollow jock, but Krakaur painted a portrait of a fascinating man; a genuine hero.

Pat Tillman
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