Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Recent Editorials

(Some of my recent editorials for The Gulf Today-posted for my records)

Ballot bruise for
Barack Obama

On November 6, 2012, Barack Obama won 332 electoral votes, exceeding the 270 required for him to be re-elected as president. Obama became the first Democratic president since Franklin D. Roosevelt to twice win the majority of the popular vote.
Two years down the line, the voters’ mood has changed dramatically. Republicans rode a wave of discontent to sweeping midterm election wins on Tuesday, seizing control of the US Senate and gaining new muscle to check Obama. The implicit indications are that America is turning right and Obama magic is on the wane.
The Republicans have also strengthened their grip on the US House of Representatives. When the new Congress takes power in January, they will be in charge of both chambers for the first time since elections in 2006.
The Republican victory had been widely predicted ahead of voting to elect 36 senators, 36 state governors and all 435 members of the House of Representatives.
According to a Reuters-Ipsos poll in late October, just 38 per cent of Americans approve of Obama's handling of his job as president, compared to 56 per cent who disapprove. Meanwhile, just 24 per cent think the country is headed in the right direction, and 61 per cent believe it is on the wrong track.
The Republican takeover in the Senate will force Obama to scale back his ambitions to either executive actions that do not require legislative approval, or items that might gain bipartisan support, such as trade agreements and tax reform.
It also will test his ability to compromise with newly empowered political opponents who have been resisting his legislative agenda since he was first elected in 2008.
Interestingly, in Tuesday's comprehensive rout, Republicans won in places where Democrats were favoured, taking a Senate race in North Carolina, pulled out victories where the going was tough, like a Senate battle in Kansas, and swept a number of governors' races in states where Democrats were favoured, including Obama's home state of Illinois.
Obama’s low job approval rating reflects a lack of confidence in his leadership. The ballot punch will automatically limit his political influence and curb his legislative agenda in his last two years in office.
The election results also alter the political dynamic on immigration reform, budget matters, presidential nominations and much more. Obama has now been left with no choice but to recalibrate his approach.

World of words to
sparkle in Sharjah

If there is one clear indication that technology cannot easily wipe away the power of the print, it is the growing popularity of the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF).
To cultivate the love for literature among people by enriching their experience of the written word is the mission of the event. And, it is leaving a deep imprint year after year in the hearts of visitors.
Interestingly, the 33rd edition of the 11-day fair, which takes off on Wednesday, will be the largest to date, with 1,256 publishers from 59 countries, presenting over 1.4 million titles in 210 languages.
The parallel programme will include 780 cultural activities, which will see participation from tens of internationally renowned figures in the worlds of culture, art, and media.
This year's edition will celebrate the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (ISESCO) as a guest of honor, and will also witness the first American Library Association conference in the Arab World and the Middle East.
What makes the fair rewarding for the visitors is the participation by a number of renowned authors, poets, intellectuals, artists, and journalists from worldwide, beside the Arab World.
The presence of Dan Brown, the leading thriller writer in the world today, as a guest of honour will surely add vibrancy to the event. Dan Brown’s books have sold over 200 million copies worldwide and translated into 55 languages.
There are other big names too like former Pakistan ambassador at the US Husain Haqqani, former Indian minister of state for foreign affairs Shashi Tharoor, award winning American author G. Willow Wilson, American author and journalist Douglas Briston.
From Arab countries, renowned actor Adil Imam, novelist and poet Ahlam Mustaghanmi, former president of Azhar University Dr. Ahmed Omar Hashim, Dr Ahmed Amara, Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra, Princess Amira  Al Taweel are all slated to grace the occasion, reinforcing the fact that the region will never ever give up its love of the written word.
What can sum up the goal of the SIBF better than the very own words of Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah, His Highness Dr Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi: “We are very keen to create a reading community and promote the benefits of reading among our children in addition to the provision of the best suitable books for all the family. Books must be available for all to benefit from and through this conception we could turn book fairs into an oasis of knowledge and light.”

A breath of
fresh air

Just last week, UN secretary-General Ban Ki-moon cautioned that if the world maintained its “business as usual” attitude about climate change, the opportunity to keep temperature rise below the internationally target of 2 degrees Celsius would slip away within the next decade.
There is now a pleasant coincidental surprise for environmentalists. A groundbreaking agreement struck by the United States and China has put the world's two worst polluters on a faster track to curbing the heat-trapping gases blamed for global warming.
With the clock ticking on a worldwide climate treaty, the two countries have sought to move beyond their troubled history as environmental adversaries and spur other nations.
Under the agreement, Obama set a goal to cut US emissions between 26 and 28 per cent by 2025, compared with 2005 levels.
It is said that the US is already on track to meet Obama's earlier goal to lower emissions 17 per cent by 2020, and that the revised goal meant the US would be cutting pollution roughly twice as fast during a five-year period starting in 2020.
China, whose emissions are growing as it builds new coal plants, set a target for its emissions to peak by about 2030 — earlier if possible — with the idea being that its emissions would then start falling.
Although that goal still allows China to keep pumping more carbon dioxide for the next 16 years, it marks an unprecedented step for Beijing, which has been reluctant to be boxed in on climate by the global community.
UN officials insist that climate change is being registered around the world and warming of the climate system is unequivocal. Since the 1950s many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia.
A budding global climate treaty, intended to be finalised next year in Paris, is undoubtedly a final opportunity to get emissions in check before the worst effects of climate change become unavoidable.
Last month, the European Union said it would cut its emissions 40 per cent by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. The US, China and the EU account for more than half of global emissions, and there are indications that the world's next-biggest emitter — India — might feel the pressure.
As Ban Ki-Moon puts it, climate change is not just a matter for environmentalists and scientists. It is a major development challenge that can also lead to serious security threats. Mobilising for climate change is also mobilising for sustainable development.
All said and done, the Beijing treaty does offer a breath of fresh air.

Palestinian state is
the ultimate goal

What Israel repeatedly forgets is the fact that the world has been watching its misdeeds for years. Its repeated attempts to place barriers in the peace process are simply not acceptable. Palestinian refugees have been waiting for 65 years for a just and lasting solution to their plight.
It is in this context that a fervent call by Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s new foreign affairs chief, for the establishment of a Palestinian state comes as a welcome signal for the world peace-loving community.
The recent 51-day conflict between Gaza and Israel saw entire neighbourhoods in the Strip flattened, and almost one-third of its population uprooted.
According to a recent UN assessment, as it stands now, over 100,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, affecting more than 600,000 people. Many people still lack access to the municipal water network. Blackouts of up to 18 hours per day are common.
In addition, the violence killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, including more than 500 children, and more than 70 Israelis.
The volatile situation has pushed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to such a situation where a draft resolution is being prepared to be submitted to the UN Security Council this month calling for an end date for Israeli occupation.
According to UN officials, an estimated 120,000 Palestinians whose homes were entirely destroyed in the conflict were now waiting for funds promised at the recent Cairo conference to trickle in so that they could finally return home.
Palestinian estimates say that as much as $6 billion is needed to repair the damage. The international community needs to urgently translate its pledges into actual cash.
Nevertheless, it is comforting to note that the world is waking up to the fact that Israeli aggression should come to an end.
Sweden last month became the first EU member in Western Europe to officially recognise the state of Palestine. It would be better for other EU states to follow suit. That would send a stern message to occupation forces.
Palestinians are victims of routine discrimination, particularly in housing, land access and employment, and anger has risen in recent months over Israel’s senseless assault on Gaza.
Mogherini’s statement is categorical and one hopes that the same sentiment echoes in Washington. As she put it, “We need a Palestinian state — that is the ultimate goal and this is the position of all the European Union.” In fact, that is the position of the international community.

Bitter truth about
sweet killer

It is not a sweet issue to write about, but the bitter fact is that approximately 350 million people are currently living with diabetes, and the number is expected to double between 2005 and 2030, according to projections by the UN World Health Organisation (WHO).
What is shocking is that in 2012, diabetes was the direct cause of 1.5 million deaths. More than 80 per cent of diabetes deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries.
As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon points out, while the world copes with infectious diseases such as influenza, malaria and the Ebola virus, World Diabetes Day, which is observed annually on Nov.14, is a reminder that non-communicable diseases pose an even greater threat to human health.
Started by WHO and the International Diabetes Federation, the Day is celebrated on Nov.14 to mark the birthday of Frederick Banting who, along with Charles Best, was instrumental in the discovery of insulin in 1922, a life-saving treatment for diabetes patients.
Diabetes is a chronic disease, which occurs when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin, or when the body cannot effectively use the insulin it produces. This leads to an increased concentration of glucose in the blood (hyperglycaemia).
Type 1 diabetes (previously known as insulin-dependent or childhood-onset diabetes) is characterised by a lack of insulin production.
Type 2 diabetes (formerly called non-insulin-dependent or adult-onset diabetes) is caused by the body’s ineffective use of insulin.
A recent report compiled by the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease and the World Diabetes Foundation has also cautioned that having diabetes triples a person’s risk of contracting TB, which killed about 1.5 million people last year.
By 2030, India, China, Indonesia, Pakistan and Brazil together are projected to have half of the world’s people living with diabetes, and are also high-TB burden countries.
The issue is too serious to be ignored. WHO has projected that diabetes will be the 7th leading cause of death in 2030.
The message is loud and clear: Governments must step up their response against diabetes, including by protecting people against risk factors such as unhealthy diet and physical inactivity.
One must not forget that there are many cost-effective ways to address diabetes. By monitoring blood pressure, improving diet and engaging in exercise, people can significantly cut their risk.
Governments as well as the private sector and civil society should also unite in producing and promoting more food products consistent with a healthy diet that are affordable, accessible and available to all.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

It’s back to books for young minds

Sharjah: The unprecedented participation by students and youngsters at the 33rd Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF) sends an unambiguous message: the GenNext is hanging on to the book-reading habit, and in fact, even more enthusiastically.
A talk with a cross-section of participants at the fair more than reinforced this viewpoint.
Ahmad Bin Rakkad Al Ameri, Director of SIBF, has revealed that the number of visitors during the first three days of the fair itself exceeded 465,000, a number that is exceptional in the history of the event. According to indications, youngsters formed a major portion of the crowd. 
The number of participating publishing houses has reached 1,256 and cuts across 59 countries.
The enthusiasm at the venue looks overwhelming. 
Jason Mathew of DC Books said he was happy with the extremely good response, especially from children. “Among those in much demand were children’s books, cookery, fiction, non-fiction and motivation. There is also a good demand for Malayalam books,” he noted.
Asked whether his stall had enough stock of books, he replied, “We have brought enough to cater during the entire event period. Wherever books are already sold out, we are airlifting from India.”
The most interesting observation, according to him, is the response of the young readers. “In spite of talks that the reading habits have been declining worldwide, we found that young readers are turning out in huge numbers and showing great interest.”
A group of teachers of Al Amal English High School, Sharjah, told this reporter that they had brought along 174 students with them. “The children are mostly looking for story books, with some searching for the English translation of the Holy Quran. Overall, the prices are reasonable. If there is one request from us, it is that the visit timings from schools should be scattered as crowds become unwieldy.”
Teacher Asma Siddique suggested that prices should be a little more affordable as children buy mostly from their pocket money. 
Akhil Ibrahim, a Sharjah Indian School student, said he was thrilled to be at the venue. He noted he was looking for encyclopaedias and books on space. 
Another stall that attracted a large number of kids had a special book on “Greatest” boxer Muhammad Ali. 
“It is a heavy volume limited edition, signed by the great boxer himself. It is an amazing book which is so heavy that children may not be even able to lift,” joked a volunteer at the stall, who did not want to reveal his name. The book is being sold at Dhs28,700. Children could be seen perusing photos at a stall displaying Russian books. 
“We have books about the UAE and Middle East in the Russian language. Lots of people say they like the books. Even if they do not understand the language, they want to see pictures. Kids especially are happy to see the pictures in the books,” said Vierra Barnett, who was at the stall. 
She added, “Many Russians who visited our stall wanted to buy some books, but unfortunately, we only display here, not sell.”
There is the British connection too. A volunteer who referred her name only as Kathy, explained: “We are a Britain-based publication group focusing on English language teaching books. We have a variety of novels for kids from 3 years to teens. We also have a new series focused on adults, combining language and career.”

Monday, November 10, 2014

SIBF stall tags antique for Euro 2.5 million

(My article in The Gulf Today)
SHARJAH: Tucked among the crowds of thousands of people that throng the 33rd Sharjah International Book Fair is a “world of treasure” that many people fail to take notice of.
A most attractive pair of library globes, Terrestrial and Celestial, which are the largest ever made in the 17th century by Willem Janszoon Blaeu, is up for grabs for, hold your breath — 2.5 million euros.
This is just one among the several precious Islamic-based manuscripts, rare books from 15 to 19th century, and other antiques, including old knives, that have been displayed and put on sale jointly by two Europe-based companies, Inlibris and Forum.
“Some of our collections go back all the way to 1500s. We are looking at private collectors, universities and libraries and others who are interested in purchasing these extraordinary collections,” say Laurens R. Hesselink of Forum and Hugo Wetscherek of Inlibris, who are based in the Netherlands and Vienna.
Interestingly, among the collections is also a book that gives a rare glimpse about the United Arab Emirates.
“Pliny’s celebrated Natural History gives us by far the most detailed account of the coast of the UAE,” says Laurens.
Chapter 32 of Book 6 vividly describes the Emirates islands, tribes and coast, right up the Musandam peninsula, before continuing on south along the coast of Oman.
Pliny is reported to have completed his Natural History in 77 AD and to judge from his account of the people and places of south-eastern Arabia, the area of the UAE was full of settlements, tribes and physical features, the names of which he recorded for posterity.
That’s not all. The exhibitors have also displayed  Alphabet, the first book ever printed in Egypt, said to be the rarest and most important of the early books printed in the Middle East, published in the very year when modern printing was introduced to the Arab World.
According to the promoters, the unique pair of globes has been well preserved over time and still show the original patina and have been handled with great care.
The Terrestrial globe is made up of 36 hand-coloured engraved half gores and two polar calottes. The prime meridian of Tenerife is used, with California shown as an island and the Great Wall of China represented pictorially.
On the other hand, the Celestrial globe is made up of 24 hand-coloured engraved half gores and two polar calottes. The constellations are in three languages, Latin, Greek and Arabic.
Asked about the response from visitors, Laurens replied, “There are a lot of enquiries and we know that not everyone can afford such expensive pieces that are meant for specific audience. We are happy we have sold a few books already.”glimpse of the other collections leaves one amazed. The list includes one of the earliest descriptions of Arabia, the first printed travel report of the Middle East, 10 watercolours of falcons and the opening of the Suez Canal with 37 large lithographs.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

'I love the smell of books'

(My article in The Gulf Today)