In Bangkok, the weather is balmy, with aperitifs of occasional showers. Much violence has occurred in the past few months and the army is in benevolent charge. In the spacious Lebanese cafe, young men in funky ties and pressed denims are smoking hookah, talking animatedly. The elders are here too, drawing deep and releasing the blue smoke like spindrifts of friendly genies. They talk with wise countenances, silk shirts over generous paunches, glittering watches on wrists. Waiters scurry, arms heaped with plates of kebabs, hummus, eggplants and pilaf, and the smell of barbecue and yoghurt is redolent in the atmosphere. An Arab wearing a pristine dishdasha and white keffiyeh peers through golden-rimmed glasses over his trimmed beard and negotiates the flavours of lamb biryani, unaware of the bedlam near him.
The bedlam is coming off the walls. Two TV sets blare scenes of blood and gore, weapon-thrusts into flesh, and wailing. One is showing scenes of the destruction being caused by Israeli bombs in Palestine; the other, fishing off the Australian coast.
The fish is bloody; the flesh white enough to turn anyone vegan, especially in the context of the yells of glee. There is undeniable skill there though in this ancient occupation of plundering the bounty of the sea for man, a battle of wits between human ingenuity and strength of instinct. Both winner and victim are part of the habit of hunting and gathering.
On the other TV, the newsreader is hardly visible under a shapeless dress, her pretty Palestinian face hidden by her headscarf. She looks glum as she talks about civilian atrocities. The Israelis have just bombed a school and people are screaming and wailing. Hamas has hidden a cache of weapons in a few schools located by the Israelis. A Red Cross official, with a surfrider’s body, is shouting instructions into a radio phone to hurry evacuations before the pounding starts again. Some of the surviving men could take to the gun again, bringing fresh retaliation from Tel Aviv. The circle of violence continues.
Much has been debated on the role of the media covering events that have shaken the world. The Western media, especially after 9/11, took a decision not to show mangled bodies and scattered limbs. In London, Madrid and elsewhere, the media followed suit. No bodies. Just the dignity of mourners. Even the coverage of the Malaysian flight downed over the Ukraine was muted; the picture of a soldier holding aloft a child’s stuffed toy much more poignant than any show of shredded limbs.
Obviously, those fighting Israel and the West have realised how to manipulate the weapons of their enemy. It’s not just the stingers, the machine guns and sophisticated Internet hackers and warriors; the Islamists are turning the West’s potent weapon of television and media into propaganda. The coverage is meant to inflame the Arab Muslim in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Nigeria and other places where the crescent of jihad has grown, so that the young—without jobs, education and chances of sitting in a cafe far away from home—are forced to take up weapons and add their names to the lists of hell.
Their rulers loot the nation’s resources, keeping the population poor or in jail. A small caucus controls the wealth. Religion is the only comfort. The original leader of Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf, taught his followers the earth was flat. He didn’t know better. But the potentates and desk-bound jihadis in the Arab world, funding revolutions in the name of religion, know better. They could give dignity to the way the media they own covers the Palestinian tragedy.
Inciting is not journalism, investigating is. But then investigation, if allowed leeway, may turn towards the Swiss bank billions, yachts and high-rolling lives as their populations wallow in poverty.
Ever since man has been around, there has been violence and politics. The media can, at this juncture of bombs and blood, relay the silent voice that is the loudest: not the ones crying out for revenge, but the ones pleading for peace.