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Green-eyed Monsters

Illustration of Othello and Iago

Illustration of Othello and Iago (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the shitstorm that broke over the head of poor Samantha Brick last week, after she wrote a piece for Hell’s in-house paper, the Daily Mail, claiming other women hated her for her looks, I was struck by how often we fail to distinguish between envy and jealousy.

Brick was at it her original piece, saying she was held back at work by a female boss who was “jealous of her”, and in her follow-up, saying her husband dismissed the initial reaction to her claims as “the spiteful remarks of a few jealous women”. Ruth Langsford was at it on daytime TV. It was the refrain of the commentators: are women jealous of her looks, or is she just an arrogant, deluded narcissist?

None of this is technically incorrect, it just misses one of the nicer distinctions of the English language. It would have been better to ask if women were envious of her looks.

When they are used as distinct terms, jealousy is fierce protectiveness of one’s rights or possessions, often but not always over a sexual partner, the jealous husband or wife convinced their partner is cheating on them.

Envy is resentfully longing for what some one else has that you do not, beauty, sexual attractiveness, skill, luck, wealth, power, fame, talent, material possessions.

I’m not being pedantic. As I said, there’s nothing technically wrong in using jealousy to mean envy: there’s a long history of the word being used this way, and many dictionaries include this definition.

But what I fear is that when we blur the two words, we lose sight of the distinction between the two emotions. When we use jealous to mean envious, we are losing sight of true jealousy, that potent and terrible motive in human affairs.

Long a motive for murder, the subject of great art and literature, jealousy is the dark underbelly of love. It is all about what we have invested in The Other, and our most deep-seated fears about what we cannot control.

At least one response to Samantha Brick invoked Shakespeare’s “green-ey’d monster”, but that was wrong, because Shakespeare was most certainly talking about sexual jealousy:

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on; that cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger;
But, O, what damned minutes tells he o’er
Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!

Othello is about envy and jealousy, Iago’s envy for Othello’s power and fame, and Othello’s jealous suspicions of his wife, Desdemona. But for Shakespeare, envy is a mean thing, the motive of a man who sets out to destroy another through lies and deceit, while jealousy is the tragic flaw of a great man, the overwhelming human emotion even he cannot control.

Jealousy is something so immense that even gods can be said to experience it: “He is a jealous God,” says the Old Testament. Not because he envies something mere mortals have, because he is protective of their devotion; the passage, in the Book of Joshua, is a warning not to worship other gods.

Envy, that tawdrier, meaner emotion, seems more in keeping with our narcissistic age, when everyone wants their moment in the glare of the camera lights, when people see a relationship not as something to nurture for itself, but as something to parade before the tabloids and the papparazzi, when love is reduced to a status update on facebook, when everyone seems to be screaming for attention.

We seem to have reached the point where people look for their own validity in others’ envy of them. Like poor Samantha Brick, so desperate to believe other women envy her looks.

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Blood on the streets

Delhi - due di notte

Delhi - 2am (Photo credit: Tamurello)

I was a few streets from home when it came at me. An SUV on the wrong side of the road, travelling in the wrong direction, rushing out of the night straight at my car, lights flashing and horn blaring for me to get out of the way.

It was no time to argue. I slammed the brakes on and swerved. I managed to avoid a head-on collision but the two cars scraped along the side of each other before slewing to a halt in the middle of the deserted road.

The other driver was getting out of his car. He looked drunk and ready for a fight. It was two o’clock in the morning and there was no one else around. No witnesses. The passenger door was opening: there were two of them. I’d heard about situations like this. They were on the wrong side of the road but they didn’t look in the mood for a discussion. I decided to get out of there.

I drove off, fast. I would get to my flat, just a few streets away, and call the police from there. For all I knew they could have been armed.

I heard the horn and looked in my mirror. They were following me, flashing their lights and  waving out of the window.

I’d been in a car chase before, but that was in Iraq at the height of the hostage-taking crisis. I never expected to be in one in Delhi, a few streets from where I live.

I could see my building, just ahead. I was almost there. Then they spotted a gap, swerved round in front of me, and blocked my path. They were getting out of the car, running towards me. There was no way out. No point in locking myself in, either, they could just break the windows.

I was half way out of the car when the other driver reached me. He pulled the door away and started hitting me. The other man was coming, with an ugly look on his face. They both looked very young.

Behind them, I saw the security guards from my street come running. Saved, I thought. The men who keep me up all night blowing their whistles are going to come to my aid.

But no. They just stood and watched. They knew my car, they knew me. But as long as we didn’t cross into their street, it seemed, we weren’t their problem.

In the end, I was lucky. Very lucky. My two attackers were young, and when it came to it, they weren’t as brave as they thought they were. I pushed the driver away hard and asked him what the hell he thought he was doing. He hesitated, lost his nerve.

They were both very drunk too, and for all I knew they were seeing two of me and didn’t know which one to hit.

While they hesitated, I managed to get inside my street, where the neighbours could hear, and called a friend. He called the police. When my two assailants heard the police were coming, they got in their car and ran for it.

That was my experience of Delhi road rage. A lot of victims are not so lucky. Last month, an autorickshaw driver was beaten to death. He hit a car by accident. The occupants of the car were drunk. They got out and attacked him. One of them picked up a brick and hit him repeatedly in the head with it. That could have been me.

That was in the dead of night. Last December a man and his son beat a man to death in broad daylight, because he brushed against their motorbike with his scooter. They beat him to death with their helmets.

In November, a 60-year-old man was shot at after his car scraped another in the middle of the afternoon. He managed to escape without injury.

Delhi is not, in general, a dangerous city. I’ve lived here eight years and in many ways it feels safer than London or New York. I’ve never heard of a mugging.

The exception is road rage. People routinely drive drunk, many are armed, and there is very little police enforcement on the roads.

As for my attackers, the security guards had taken their license number. We gave it to the police. They checked and said the car didn’t match the description. Maybe the guard got the number wrong. Maybe some one paid a bribe. That was the end of it.

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The Mad Axemen of Delhi

“What the hell was that?” I said. It sounded like something big had just crashed to earth right outside my window.

“I think they’re trimming the trees,” my housekeeper said, peering out.

Trimming? Huge branches were coming down in all directions, hitting the ground so hard they were breaking apart.There were several men sitting high up in the trees, hacking at them with axes, while others shouted up orders from below. This was trimming the trees, Delhi style.

I saw a particularly large bough land just feet from where my car was parked and, grabbing the keys, I ran for it. I had to clamber over debris piled up by the door.

Outside, it was raining wood. Holding my hand ineffectually over my head, I shouted to the axemen to let me pass, and they stopped for long enough for me to move the car.

None of the men in the trees had safety harnesses, they were just perched where they could. One looked in particular danger of chopping off the branch he was sitting on at any moment.

It turned out the Residents’ Welfare Association in the block where I live had decided the trees had grown too close to the flats and needed cutting back. They hadn’t bothered to let the residents know, or warn us to move our cars.

Back in the flat, my internet connection had gone. Looking out on the terrace, I saw one of the half-cut branches had fallen against the telephone cable where it ran into the building. I rushed out, shouting to the man in the tree opposite to stop, and tried to disentangle the branch from the cable.

It was a mistake, I shouldn’t have pushed my luck. The axeman looked at me uncomprehendingly and continued to hack away. The branch came away from the tree completely and I suddenly had its full weight in my hand, threatening to drag me off the terrace, towards the ground.

I let go in a hurry. My hands were scraped and bleeding. I went outside in a fury and demanded to see the foreman. The axemen laughed at me, a comical foreigner who was grabbing hold of falling tree branches for some reason. The foreman was contrite. He promised they’d be more careful.

In the UK, where I grew up, an operation like this would have involved roping off the entire area. No one would have been allowed in or out. The workers would have been made to wear safety harnesses, and bright, protective clothing, and no one would have been allowed so much as a few feet up a tree without specialised safety training. It would have taken days to organise. And it would have all cost a fortune.

In India, the job was done in a day.

And there you have Europe’s economic woes in a nutshell. How are European economies going to compete with India, with its hundreds of millions of labourers, prepared to work without safety regulations, for a fraction of what their European counterparts are paid?

It’s not just cutting down trees. It’s manufacturing cars and textiles and consumer goods. It’s mining and steel production.

“India is an emerging economy with a vast pool of cheap labour,” a friend told me. “You have the wealth concentrated in a few and then these huge numbers of people prepared to work for very little. It’s a model that’s never been seen before.”

But I fear it has. It sounds like the Britain of the Industrial Revolution.

The workers’ rights, safety regulation and minimum standard of living we in Europe have fought so long and hard to win since the days of the Industrial Revolution have turned upon us and are throttling us, because they make us uncompetitive.

We are faced with a horrible dilemma: jettison our values in order to compete or drown clinging to our ideals. And while we squabble over government spending cuts, the economies of India and China keep on growing.

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The coup that wasn’t

Woke this morning to startling news. The Indian Express was leading on a military coup attempt in January, some one said. A military coup, in India! I looked out the window: still the same Delhi. It was hard to imagine tanks on the streets.

Over on Twitter it was getting very heated. People were insulting each other, accusing each other of saying things they hadn’t. The Indian Express was denying it had said there was a coup attempt.

I got a copy of the paper. It was dramatic stuff, the front page cleared to make way for the story. “This is a story you would tell with extreme care and caution,” it began, and went on to tell of a foggy night in January when the government received intelligence reports that an army unit was suddenly and unexpectedly moving towards Delhi. While they were checking that, a second report came in that a separate unit of paratroopers was on its way to Delhi too.

And this was happening the same day that the army chief, who was locked in a fight with the government over military equipment, had gone to the Supreme Court to try to extend his term of office by a year. I had to look out the window again to make sure I was still in India, there seemed such a disconnect between what I was reading, and the country as I know it.

It’s hard to conceive of a military coup in India, it’s as extraordinary a thought as the tanks rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue or the army storming Buckingham Palace. And yet, at the height of India’s triumphant emergence as a new economic power, here was one of its most respected newspapers strongly suggesting that something like an attempted coup had taken place.

True, the Express didn’t call it a coup. It did, though, give up its entire front page to a breathless account of unauthorised night-time military manouvres that were converging on Delhi, until they were sent back by a panicked government.

It did say the military’s explanations, that it was an exercise “to check its ability to make quick deployments of key units during fog” was “viewed with scepticism at the highest level”.

Something is clearly going on. The Express was busy backpeddalling today, saying it only reported on concerns over unauthorised manouvres. But the way it had played the story had already had its effects: international headlines saying “Indian government denies coup fears” — hardly likely to inspire confidence among foreign investors — and people questioning the motives of the military top brass.

Was it a newspaper that got too excited by the chance for a sensational story, and didn’t let the facts stand in the way? Or was some one stirring up mischief, briefing the Express with the story for their own ends? There are all sorts of rumours of lucrative defence deals hanging on who is in power, both in the government and in the top echelons of the army.

India’s annual defence budget is $40bn, but the army chief says the military is “woefully” underequipped, doesn’t have night-fighting capabilities, and doesn’t even have enough ammunition.

Worse, he has alleged he was offered a multi-million dollar bribe to buy substandard trucks.

Did something amiss happen in the fog on the night of January 16? Or is that what some one wants us to believe?

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The people are coming for you

In February last year, drunk on the euphoria of the Arab Spring and cheap wine, I put this rant up on Facebook:

“Bouteflika, Saleh, Assad, Gaddafi, Ahmadinejad and you silent eminences his masters, Abdullah the Hashemite, Abdullah of the House of Saud, don’t sleep, don’t turn out the lights, don’t blink, the people are coming for you.”

Well, yes. They really were coming for Gaddafi. Saleh of Yemen is gone too, though allowed to live.

Billboard with portrait of Assad and the text ...

Billboard with portrait of Assad on the old city wall of Damascus 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Things aren’t looking good for Assad, though I daresay he can murder a few more of his people yet before they drag him, kicking and screaming, from power. But I wonder about Assad, who studied to be an eye doctor in London, I wonder what he thinks of as his guns tear his people apart.

What does he think of in those dark, lonely hours when sleep does not come? Does he think of Gaddafi, dragged out from that drain, pushed and slapped around, blood pouring from his face, bewildered, at the mercy of violent men, all his power and majesty stripped away, dying out there on that dusty road?

Does he think of Mubarak, humiliated and on trial? Does he think of Saddam, mustering a little dignity at the last before the noose, with the witnesses whooping like jackals around him?

I’m sure he does. He shakes himself free of those thoughts, gets out of bed, washes his face — thinking, as he does, of the blood on Gaddafi’s face again. You have to keep going, he tells himself. For Syria.

Without him, he reasons, there would be civil war. He is the only thing holding his country together. Without his regime, without his guiding hand, they would all be at each other’s throats: Muslims, Christians, Sunni, Alawites, Druze. It would be Lebanon in the eighties, only worse.

And beneath it all, unacknowledged, the thought of Gaddafi on the back of that pick-up truck. He watches the scene play out again, watches through Gaddafi’s eyes, those young men looming over him, strong enough to snap his old body like a twig, still scared, wondering how far they can push it, wondering what will happen if they hurt him.

And what are they thinking of in their palaces across the Middle East, as Assad goes back to bed in Damascus, tries to empty his mind and find solace in sleep again? A little south, does King Abdullah wake in a sudden cold sweat? Does he think Jordan will remain immune forever? Does fear walk behind him, a constant attendant through his palaces?

Further south, across the empty desert wastes, what of that grander King, Abdullah of Saudi Arabia? Is he haunted by the same thoughts? Does he have his moments of blind terror in the night?

Across the Gulf in Iran, Ahmadinejad and his masters have plenty to keep them awake. An Israeli air strike on their nuclear projects, a full American attack, a disastrous war. But these are not the only things to fear.

Perhaps Ahmadinejad thinks he can walk the tightrope between populism and serving the system. Perhaps he has deluded himself that he is on the side of the people, as he has deluded himself about so much else.

What of the silent eminences, the ayatollahs? What fears come to them in the night?

These are unquiet nights for the rulers of the Middle East. All of them must think of Gaddafi from time to time and wonder.

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Sleepless nights in Delhi

India Gate, Delhi

India Gate, Delhi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t sleep well. Perhaps I have unquiet dreams. But I think it has something to do with the man who blows a whistle outside my window all night.

When I first moved to Delhi, I thought it was a drunk blowing a whistle at three in the morning. Or a madman. It was a football referee’s whistle, and he was blowing it hard, really going for it, and I thought he was going to wake the whole neighbourhood up, and that in a few moments I would hear angry voices. But there was nothing, just that whistle, all night.

When I asked the next day, it turned out he was being paid to blow the whistle. By my neighbours. And by me, in fact. He is the chowkidar, the nightwatchman, employed by the Residents’ Welfare Association of the block where I live, and paid out of our monthly dues. He’s there to make sure that no one tries to break into any of the flats or steal a car.

I thought I understood. There had been an intruder, and the guard was blowing his whistle to raise the alarm. But no. He was at it with the whistle again the next night. And the night after.

“Why does he keep blowing the whistle?” I asked my neighbour after another night of burying my head under the pillow. “Can’t we get him to stop?”

“Oh no,” my neighbour said. “The other residents wouldn’t be happy. He is supposed to blow the whistle.”

“But why?”

“So that we know he is awake.”

But we’re awake too. Some nights he doesn’t start till late, and, lulled into a false sense of security, I fall asleep only to be woken a few minutes later by the sound of that whistle starting up. Brrrrrr. Brrr-rrrr-rrrr. I moved. The whistle followed me. In the neighbourhood where I live now, there are two guards and they blow the whistles to each other across the street, trying to see who can blow the loudest. Brrrrrr! Brrrrrrrr! BRRRRRRRR!

I’ve lived in Delhi eight years and I’ve come to love the city and its ways. But one thing I still do not understand is the whistle. I cannot understand why you would pay a man to keep you awake at night. Many people have tried to explain to me, but it’s always the same explanation. People feel safer if they know the watchman is awake.

But what are all these watchmen guarding us from? Every residential neighbourhood in Delhi has them, every neighbourhood is gated. Where a friend lives, they recently put up razor wire to stop people climbing in over the fence.

But this is not Johannesburg. In my eight years in Delhi, I’ve never heard of a break-in.

I’ve often wondered if there’s something more to it. If people in Delhi have some deep-seated distrust of quiet: if they, in fact, sleep better when there’s noise outside.

Or is it a hangover from some time when knowing that the watchman was awake really was a matter of life and death, some practice from the old badlands around Delhi, which were the haunt of bandits not so many decades ago, that has crept into modern urban life?

Whatever the reason, after eight years in Delhi, I still haven’t got used to it, and I still have long, sleepless nights, haunted by that whistle.

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