Sunday, 27 November 2011

Muslim Writers Awards & The Guardian Student Media Awards

This past week has been a rather big one for me, personally. On Tuesday, I attended the Muslim Writers Awards as I was shortlisted for the Young Journalist of the Year award. I was delighted to have just been shortlisted and it is safe to say that I was shocked when I was named the winner! All in all, it was a really great night; I met some very interesting people, in a fantastic venue (Shakespeare's Globe Theatre) and received some very nice (and kind) feedback from the BBC presenter, Asad Ahmad, who presented me with my award. Some people have asked if they can read the pieces that I submitted for the award (you have to submit 3 articles) so here's a list of the articles and brief descriptions.

  1. Ethnic Profiling as a Policy of Counter-Terrorism is Not Working - This article was written shortly after the attack by Anders Behring Breivik and I wrote about how racial profiling should not be the main focus of our counter-terrorism policies, giving Norway as a primary example. I also write about how Muslims were asked to spy on their communities and mosques (resonant to the times of Vichy) when returning to the UK after a holiday.
  2. Unveiling the 'burqa ban' - This article focusses on Sarkozy's wrongly-named burqa ban (the main object being banned is the niqab) and how he is simply continued the trend of Islamophobia in France in order to try and get the right-wing vote.
  3. Kettled in Parliament Square - This is a very long, detailed report of what I saw, heard, felt and the views of other students on the day that tuition fees were raised to up to £9000. I was in Parliament Square and was reporting live on the day and so experienced the kettling by police and was on of thousands to be without access to basic sanitation as we were not allowed to leave.

On Wednesday night, the next night, I attended the Guardian Student Media Awards as The Student Journals was shortlisted for the Website of the Year category, which was very enthusing mainly because the judging took place before TSJ had even been publishing for a year. We didn't win on the night unfortunately but we did end up being runners up, which I feel is a fantastic achievement for what we have done so far. Hopefully, our continued growth and development will help us do even better next year.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Don’t let Charlie Hebdo be seen as a victim

Can satire and Islamism co-exist? This was the question posed on the MailOnline’s comment website, Right Minds, shortly after the firebombing of the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Weekly), a satirical French magazine in Paris.

Following the election of Islamic parties in Tunisia and Libya, Editor of Charlie Hebdo, Stephane Charbonnier, decided to publish a “special edition” of the newspaper which declares Prophet Muhammad to be the “guest editor” and features a comic image of him on the front cover.

Yet is the MailOnline’s question the one we should be analysing? Perhaps we should instead be focussing on the issue of freedom of expression; talking about the firebomb as Charbonnier argues that it was “an attack on freedom itself” and in particular the freedom of expression. This is also the opinion of many French political leaders and commentators who all came out in a similar tone. French Prime Minister, Francois Fillon, for example, said that “all attacks on the freedom of the press must be condemned with the greatest firmness.”

Indeed, the attack on the satirical weekly was inexcusable and freedom of the press is an extremely important value to defend – and this is also the attitude taken by head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, Mohammed Moussaoui. What is most striking is that this attack occurred before the paper had even reached the public – the perpetrators had not even seen what the issue consisted of before they threw Molotov cocktails.

This brings us to a yet a more important point. The reason that Charlie Hebdo was already being talked about – and possibly (at the time of writing the culprits remain unknown) why its headquarters were set ablaze – was because the editors had already revealed details of this “special edition” to the media. The newspaper had effectively informed the public what the paper was going to contain before it was published, rather a strange move for a newspaper. Unless, of course, their aim was to provoke.

Freedom of the press allows newspapers to put across their own viewpoint, criticise the government and Charlie Hebdo is meant to be a weekly that satirises the latest political events. However, this issue was direct goading and I argue that the primary aim was to create controversy in order to gain international news attention, especially since it seems they are in dire need of good marketing. After all, I live in France and this is the first time I have heard of the paper. Even worse (for them), I received disgusted looks in the first five newsagents I visited asking for Charlie Hebdo each saying that they didn’t stock the paper.

When I eventually obtained a copy, it became clearer why the other newsagents did not sell the paper. For a satire, it missed one crucial element; the paper is just not funny. The front cover depicts a cartoon of the Prophet in which he jokes, “A hundred lashes if you don’t die of laughter!” The editorial, apparently written by the Prophet, states, “There is no god but God, otherwise all hell will be let loose.” Further inside, another image of the Prophet is seen. This time, he has a red nose with a caption, “Yes, Islam and humour are compatible.”

If this was a theatre, the phrase used to describe the paper would be “all sparkle and no dazzle”. The issue is simply an attempt to mock perceived Islamic values, rather than to make a serious point and this is demonstrated further in their other comic skits, with a special feature insulting the idea of the niqab and ridicules the idea that neither Tunisia nor Libya can be democratic if they are lead by Islamic governments. Essentially, the jokes are poor and a little dreary.

Now Charlie Hebdo has started to act the martyr. They re-published the same issue in the name of freedom of expression and started to whinge when they no longer could moderate the comments on their Facebook page and have criticised the corporation. What they failed to mention is that they in fact broke Facebook’s Terms and Conditions by creating a fake user account called Charlie Hebdo and that the social netwrok has been deleting such user accounts for the past year.

This anarchist paper prides itself on its ability to make humorous commentary on political issues yet this special issue lacked hilarity and instead has continued the right-wing Islamophobic trend that has been sweeping the country in recent years. Without even reflecting on the niqab ban earlier this year and the ban on wearing the hijab in public schools, the Government last year went so far as sponsoring debates around the country about the role of Islam in French society, all in the name of secularism. For too long have French governments been targeting Muslims as part of their sinister right-wing agenda to gain more votes. Perhaps the political leaders should now be asking whether they have indeed gone too far with their attack on Islam and should instead be concentrating on real matters that affect the nation, such as the fact that their unemployment rate is an astounding 9.9%.

Sorry about the delay in posting this up - I mistakenly thought that I already had. Originally published in The Muslim News on 25 November 2011.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Telecommunications in a French city

The amount that we prize telecommunications (mobile, internet etc.) cannot be undervalued, especially with the number of smartphones now in possession. It is only because I have been living without Internet for the past few weeks that I can write about our reliance upon it. While we may get dozens of spam email a day, there are often at least a couple that demand a reply or even just need to be read.

In France, the system is a little strange and makes everything harder than it should be. Since my iPhone was unlocked, I’m fortunate enough to be able to use it in France and pop in a French sim card (many of my American friends don’t have the same luck).

Yet getting the Internet to work on it was somewhat more difficult as it required the network to unlock the sim card to be able to use Internet (which takes 24 working hours) – this was on a pay as you go phone of course. Getting a contract with the Internet included was easier, although the prices are most definitely more expensive than in the UK. It also seems strange that they seem to not value phone calls as much and often, contracts will include an hour of ‘free’ calls.

Getting a contract was relatively difficult also. In order to get a mobile phone contract, you need proof of address, which seems fair enough. Yet you cannot show your contract to the phone company nor even a bill that you have paid. You have to show your civil and house insurance. The problem I had though is that since I had only just moved when I was getting my contract, I did not have the insurance as the bank’s earliest free appointment was 15 days later.

Of course, I could have waited that long to get my contract. Yet pay-as-you-go is simply not worth it in France. €5 credit will expire after a week for example – which means that you have to pay at least €20 a month. What is more often the case though is that you will need to top up relatively often, simply because using a pay-as-you-go phone is also very expensive.

I therefore went to the shop of another phone network, on the same road, where they were more than happy to give me a phone contract. While they usually ask for the same details as the first store, I think they realised that it made more commercial sense to accept me as a customer especially considering that I was showing them a contract to rent an apartment for 6 months.

The next problem was getting Internet in my apartment, something I am currently without, 10 days after going to the store. Yet this is comparable with the UK, where people often have to wait a month or so to have a working Internet connection. However I received a text yesterday letting me know that my Internet should be activated in the next few days. The problem? I don’t yet have the router and other equipment to have a working Internet connection. Allow me to explain.

When I went to get an Internet connection, it was a very different experience to getting a phone contract. The only thing I had to give was my RIB (a little sheet with all the information about my French bank on it) so that the company could set up a direct debit. They then checked to see whether a phone line had previously been activated at that address by crosschecking the address with previous customers. At this point, I was shown a list on previous tenants and was asked whether any of them lived in my studio. Obviously I had no idea – so I dropped over to the nearest McDonalds and sent an email to my landlady asking whether [name removed] previously lived at my address.

Having confirmed this, I went back the next day, happy in the knowledge that I had saved the €50 activation fee and a rather weird experience. Another group of language assistants had to activate their line and were told, “A man will come to your building and create a line. You will not see this man but he will be there” and they then received an email with the same information.

Back in the shop, I then sorted out all the paperwork and asked about the equipment. Unlike in the UK, where technicians will often come and install the router, you have to go to a random address (it could be a café, a pub, a bar or just anywhere really) to pick up your equipment – and no, you cannot just ask to pick it up at the store, that is apparently too difficult. So I am currently sitting in a home that may have a live Internet connection and waiting for a text telling me that I can go and collect my router (Neufbox) from a bar.

However, I still feel a little lucky about this situation. Another group of friends in the same city were with Orange and it took over a month – and a lot of hassle and argument – to have working Internet. This is particularly strange considering that yet another language assistant with Orange acquired a working connection within 10 days.

So now I wait for a text to pick up my router while my emails are (mostly) read on my phone. The only problem is that when I need to properly work or need to send articles or documents, I need the Internet on my computer. Ah well, I guess all this time frequenting cafés is helping the French economy…

Written for my year-abroad blog,

Monday, 14 November 2011

What I’ve been doing, my studio and what it means to be (kind of) vegetarian in France

It’s been a little while now that I’ve written, far too long in fact. That’s not to say that I’ve not been writing at all but it has simply been a little bit difficult. I’m working on a piece on the Olympic torch right now for TSJ and wrote an article about the Charlie Hebdo affair (I’ll link to the articles in my main site once they’ve been published). If you’re an assistant in France, you may be particularly interested in the second because Charlie Hebdo is, obviously, based in France – even if it not that well known – and its story is worth following.

I should probably pick up now where I finished off. Finding a place to stay. In fact, I found a place relatively quickly (the first place I looked) but I could not move in until the beginning of November. It is relatively costly though it is fully furnished (which is generally quite difficult to find around France), very close to the main train and tram stations, a 10-minute walk from some other teaching assistants (who are also good friend) and a 20-minute walk to the city centre.

All places are though not perfect and there are some problems wrong with it though; it is not too close to a large supermarket (but it seems that big supermarkets are not based towards the centre of the city in French cities but rather the peripheries), it’s not too close to a small supermarket (if you just want to get a quick snack on the way home for example or have a craving) and it is lacking an oven of any sort so I need to buy one.

What I have already learnt though is that I love having my own place to stay as opposed to a foyer, somewhere that I can call my own, somewhere that I can cook (and save money by cooking my own meals), somewhere that I can relax and feel entirely comfortable.

Yes, in a foyer I was forced to speak French a little more often, be it with the receptionist or over dinner with some French students. But I was also forced to go to the canteen to eat meals as a means to save money and with the French tendency to expose all meals to some form of meat; I was often only eating chips as there was no vegetarian (or halal) option. There was one occasion in which I was unsure about a vegetarian rice dish and so I asked the chef.

“Is this vegetarian?”
I am then given the dish at which point I probe at it with a fork and find little pink pieces floating around. “What’s this?”
“Oh, that’s pork.”
“You just said that it’s vegetarian.”
“Yes, because they’re only small pieces.”
I am then met with a disgruntled look as I say, “I can’t eat this. Vegetarian means no meat.”

Indeed, this has happened on a couple of occasions, albeit slightly differently, in various areas around the city. For example, in my first few days I was looking for somewhere to eat lunch and came across a large sandwich shop/restaurant. After initially being told they had no vegetarian paninis, I asked whether they had a single item on the menu that was vegetarian and was flatly denied. In another restaurant where they had no vegetarian options, I asked them to make me a cheese sandwich, so they literally cut two slices of cheese and put it inside a baguette for me. Since the French pride themselves on their food, this was not the least bit impressive.

There are a number of other things that have happened since I last wrote and some require full blog posts such as some of the experiences in my lessons, my trip to Downing Street (last week) and my time in Paris (this past weekend).  Something I can tell you easily is that I now have a lift to and from my school and so I save an awful lot of time travelling. It also means that I can speak French for a number of hours a week while in the car, hopefully improving my French all the time. After all, I’m told that’s why I’m here.

Written for my year-abroad blog,