Reap what you sew

Palestinian campaigners in Lebanon have discovered a new way to protest – by breaking world records.

On 15 May, the world's longest keffiyeh, or scarf, was made in Lebanon to commemorate the 62nd anniversary of the naqba - the Palestinian "catastrophe" that was the creation of the state of Israel. Jack Brockbank, an adjudicator from Guinness World Records, formally announced that the chain of scarves, sewn by volunteers, measured more than 6,552 metres and had beaten last year's Spanish entry (2,932 metres). It took him two and a half hours to measure it. The Palestinian struggle has its lighter side.

This was the first large-scale naqba commemoration event in Lebanon that was not organised under the auspices of any political faction. It was a civil and independent project, initiated by the Campaign for the Protection of the Right of Return. Its founder, Walid Taha, was aiming to draw attention to the plight of Palestinian refugees all over the world, whose right of return, enshrined in UN Resolution 194, still has not been implemented. The keffiyeh was laid out in Beirut's Sports City football stadium in the shape of the number 194. "Palestinians insist on Resolution 194," Taha said.

The black-and-white keffiyeh is one of many images that have come to symbolise Palestinian national identity and the struggle for human rights and independence. Others include the keys - still kept by refugees - to the homes they fled in 1948; the map of Palestine worn as a pendant; the traditional cross-stitch embroidery; and the Handala cartoon character, created by the assassinated cartoonist Naji al-Ali.

While the keffiyeh-style scarf adorns many a fashionista's neck in the west, it has a prodigious Palestinian history. Usually worn by farmers and peasants for protection from the sun, it spread to the cities and became a symbol of resistance during the strikes of the 1930s, when Palestinians protested against accelerated Jewish immigration under the British Mandate. Country people joked that the townsmen, who normally wore a tarboosh or fez, couldn't tie a keffi­yeh competently.

Paradoxically, with its current popularity around the world, the keffiyeh is increasingly being mass-produced in China or India, putting some small Palestinian weaving factories out of business.

Besides drawing attention to Resolution 194, Taha had a secondary aim: to fight for social and civil rights for Palestinian refugees in their host countries. They suffer discrimination in Lebanon, where the half-million or so officially registered refugees are denied the right to work in a number of professions and to buy or inherit property. They have little access to the country's health-care system. Many Lebanese oppose the naturalisation of Palestinian refu­gees, fearful that this would raise the number of Sunnis and reduce the Christian population to an even smaller minority.

The suspicion of Palestinians dates from the 1970s, when the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) conducted its campaign of military resistance to Israel from Lebanon and played an essential role in the Lebanese civil war until Israel invaded the country in 1982, forcing the PLO into exile in Tunisia.

Big fala

The refugees at the Nahr al-Bared camp, near Tripoli, have suffered further displacement and hardships since 2007, when the camp was destroyed by the Lebanese army. The armed forces claimed that it had been infiltrated by mostly non-Palestinian Fatah al-Islam militants, who were inspired by (though not necessarily organisationally linked to) al-Qaeda.

Imad Audi, from Nahr al-Bared, attending the Beirut commemoration, could not understand why the destroyed camp remains a militarised zone and why his family is still enduring indignities two years after losing its home. "Why do I need a permit just to go to my own home?" he asked. The reconstruction of the camp is being blighted by legal and political delays, as well as insufficient funding, and residents remain in makeshift homes.

Although some Palestinian refugees - especially the Christians - were granted Lebanese citizenship as early as 1948, most remain without nationality and without rights. Palestinians often feel ambivalent about naturalisation, anxious that it would somehow weaken their right to return to their homeland. By any legal and moral standard, however, naturalisation is not in conflict with either the right of return or compensation. As Taha said: "We need civil rights in order to struggle more effectively for our right of return."

The presentation of the Guinness World Record certificate to the organisers was greeted by cheers from the crowd, which consisted mostly of children and youth groups from many of the 12 UN refugee camps in Lebanon. The party at the stadium included a programme of folk songs and dabke dancing. Although it had the celebratory feel of a national day, it was also solemn, the commemoration of a national defeat. In a stage enactment of a traditional wedding, the singing and dancing were interrupted by Israeli bombs and soldiers.

It was the second time that Jack Brockbank had been to Lebanon in the past few weeks. An Israeli claim in January to the world's largest plate of hummus provoked the outrage of the Lebanese, whose culinary expertise is a source of pride. To redress the affront, they produced a record-breaking bowl of hummus of their own on 8 May, and topped it off with the world's largest plate of falafel the following day. It's one thing to occupy people's land, but it's a bridge too far to lay claim to their cuisine as well.

This article first appeared in the 31 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war on the veil

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State