Recent writing

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Bahria Town Karachi

In 2019, I broke my foot and wrote a book – which is one way of saying that the year has passed in a bit of a blur. Here are links to some shorter bits of reporting and opinion writing that I didn’t get the chance to share here earlier.

This is just a selection – if you’re interested, you can see all my pieces for Al Jazeera English here, and all my pieces for the Guardian here

Historical war crimes: an amnesty for British soldiers? (Guardian)

In May, as government investigations into British soldiers hit the headlines again, I went on the Guardian’s Today in Focus podcast to talk about my 2018 investigation into the Iraq Historic Allegations Team.

British schools should teach migration and empire: Runnymede (Al Jazeera English)

This news feature focuses on calls to amend the British school curriculum so that empire and migration are taught to all students.

‘Inspired by Central Park’: the new city for a million outside Karachi (Guardian)

This feature for Guardian Cities drew on material from my forthcoming book, about the massive Bahria Town development at the outskirts of Karachi, and the devastating impact on local villagers.

Young Palestinian musicians challenge ‘system of oppression’ (Al Jazeera English)

I loved writing this piece for AJE about the Palestine Youth Orchestra, as its European tour got underway.

Roma Holocaust: Amid rising hate, ‘forgotten’ victims remembered (Al Jazeera English)

Pegged to an exhibition in London, this piece looked at the heavy toll borne by Europe’s Roma community during the Holocaust – and the ongoing implications of this hatred.

The first Pakistani Nobel laureate few have heard of (Al Jazeera English)

Scientist Abdus Salam has been largely ignored in Pakistan because he was an Ahmadi Muslim. I wrote about a new film aiming to restore his legacy.

It’s shameful that Johnson has reneged on the inquiry into Tory Islamophobia (Guardian)

Written soon after December’s general election, this comment piece looks at the devastating and pervasive impact of Islamophobia.

Pakistani politics

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Manzoor Pashteen, leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement

I’ve been going back and forth to Pakistan a lot this year as I research for my forthcoming book, Karachi Vice, and work on other projects, including my first documentary film (details to come!). It has been a tumultuous period in Pakistani politics, with July’s election putting Imran Khan in power, amid a widespread crackdown on free expression. I’ve written various articles on these subjects over the course of the year, ranging from opinion pieces to more in-depth reported stories. Here are some links:

Under the watchful eye of the army (Index on Censorship)

This reported piece for Index on Censorship’s July 2018 issue (behind a paywall) looks at the drastic ramping up of restrictions on free speech in Pakistan.

Imran Khan has won over Pakistan, but the real power still lies with the army (Guardian)

This comment piece, written the day after July’s election, looks ahead to Imran Khan’s premiership and notes the role of the military in the election.

Imran Khan’s treatment of Asia Bibi is a dangerous betrayal (Guardian)

This comment piece looks at the plight of religious minorities in Pakistan, and the political response to a court verdict freeing Asia Bibi, a Christian woman serving time for blasphemy.

A spark in Pakistan (Prospect)

This long-form reported piece appeared in Prospect’s November 2018 issue. It looks at the emergence of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, a peaceful civil rights movement drawing attention to military and human rights abuses. The movement has been subject to a harsh crackdown. I interviewed the group’s young leader, Manzoor Pashteen, as well as others involved in the movement. (Clipping to come).

 

 

Curing violence

225_ViolentCrime_epidemic_NL1In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion about the “public health approach” to tackling violence, with suggestions that such a model could be introduced in London to counter rising knife crime. But what does a public health approach to violence actually mean in practice? In this piece for Mosaic, I spent time in Glasgow – where a public health model has been highly effective – and in Chicago, where this approach was first developed.

Humans engage in a wide array of risky behaviours that can lead to serious health problems: smoking, overeating, sex without protection. It has long been the accepted wisdom that doctors should encourage patients to change their behaviour – give up smoking, go on a diet, use a condom – rather than wait to treat the emphysema, obesity-related heart attacks, or HIV that could be the result. Yet when it comes to violence, the discussion is often underpinned by an assumption that this is an innate and immutable behaviour and that people engaging in it are beyond redemption. More often than not, solutions have been sought in the criminal justice system – through tougher sentencing, or increasing stop-and-search (despite substantial evidence that it is ineffective in reducing crime). Is enforcement the wrong tactic altogether?

Mosaic publishes everything under a Creative Commons licence, meaning their pieces are free to republish elsewhere. A version of this article ran simultaneously in the Guardian’s Long Read section (it was also featured on the front page of the newspaper that day), and was later picked up by CNN, the BBC, and the Independent, among others.

Investigating war crimes

4161In the years after Britain withdrew from Iraq, allegations of misconduct by British troops were coming thick and fast. In 2010, the government established the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (Ihat). This was an investigative body that was supposed to bring together all the allegations and deal with them quickly. Perhaps predictably, that was not what happened. The investigation spiralled out of control and closed in disgrace in 2017. In the process, the entire field of human rights law had been called into disrepute, while stories abounded of soldiers whose lives had been put on hold during protracted investigations.

For my latest report for the Guardian’s Long Read section, I spent months interviewing people involved at all stages of the process to piece together how it went so wrong. As Britain faces the possibility of investigation by the International Criminal Court, this could have far-reaching consequences.

The collapse of Ihat seems likely to mark the end of serious attempts to investigate alleged crimes by British soldiers in Iraq, leaving questions about the scale of abuses and accountability unanswered. After such a public failure, what politician would want to reopen the issue? Yet, behind the headlines of corrupt lawyers and incompetent investigators, the true story of Ihat is more complicated. Both military advocates and human rights defenders agree that the scandal around Ihat was at the very least, politically convenient for the Ministry of Defence. With human rights lawyers cast as the villains, the MoD could avoid uncomfortable questions about its own role in training soldiers in procedures that breached the Geneva conventions. “At times, the MoD has been tempted to throw the uniform under the bus,” says Johnny Mercer, a Conservative MP who was instrumental in Ihat’s closure.

You can read the full article over at the Guardian’s website and the clipping is below.

Reframing gender violence

4492I was absolutely delighted to be selected as a media fellow for a programme run by Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Social Difference. The programme, titled  Religion and the Global Reframing of Gender Violence, aims to question dominant narratives about gender based violence, with a particular focus on the Middle East and South Asia. Along with two other media fellows, I attended an academic conference in Jordan (a book containing all the papers should be out at some point this year), and then went on to do several weeks of reporting in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. My focus was on gender-specific issues in the refugee crisis; I’ve had a few pieces already out based on the reporting I did, with some longer articles in the works.

Yazidis in Iraq: ‘The genocide is ongoing’ (Al Jazeera)

ISIS’s crimes against the Yazidi community were an international sensation – but despite this attention, many in northern Iraq do not feel they are getting the support they desperately need. I interviewed Yazidis who are taking action to help their community.

Iraq after ISIL: ‘It was like a ghost town’ (Al Jazeera)

Telskof is a Christian village in Iraq’s Niniveh plain. It was occupied by ISIS – but now the militant group has been cleared out, and residents are moving back. I interviewed people there about the struggles of starting over.

The Refugee Whose Husband Sold Her Into Sex Slavery (Broadly)

Syrian refugee women are incredibly vulnerable to sexual exploitation due to their precarious economic position and uncertain immigration status. In Lebanon, I met one particularly brave woman, who has escaped forced prostitution and is now working to help others in the same situation.

Hairdressing, sewing, cooking – is this really how we’re going to empower women? (The Guardian)

Women’s empowerment has long been a development buzzword, but a narrow focus on getting women into low-paid work may be marginalising them further. I drew on material from Jordan and Iraq to examine the occasional failings of empowerment programmes.

 

 

The Trojan Horse affair

2887In 2014, a series of allegations surfaced about schools in Birmingham. The central claim was that a group of Muslim men had conspired to take over governing bodies in order to “Islamise” schools. The story quickly became a national – even international – scandal. The media descended on a small corner of Birmingham, and the ripple effect went up to the highest levels of government.

Yet three years later, there is still no evidence that there was a conspiracy. So what happened? I spent over a year working on a piece for the Guardian’s Long Read section, investigating events at Park View – the school at the centre of the scandal – and schools affiliated to it. I spoke to former teachers, students, politicians and council workers to try and build up a picture of what happened and what went wrong in the handling of it.

Three years on, the Trojan horse affair remains perhaps the best known and most polarising story about Britain’s relationship with its Muslim citizens. For many, the story has come to symbolise the failures of multiculturalism and the threat that hardline Islamic ideology poses to the future of the country. It was mentioned in the 2017 Ukip manifesto, and it is rare for a month to go by without some reference to the scandal in the rightwing press. (Several reports this year in the Telegraph and the Times have warned of a “new Trojan horse plot” in different parts of Britain.) For others, it is a confected scandal promoted by rightwing newspapers, the product of a climate in which all British Muslims are viewed with suspicion, and complex questions about faith and integration are reduced by politicians and the media to hysterical debates about terrorism.

You can read the full story over at the Guardian, and the clipping is below. (I also wrote about the Trojan Horse affair at the time, in this 2014 article for the New Humanist)

Trojan Horse Long Read

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Activism and hope in the Syrian crisis

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Syrian women protest in Aleppo Photograph: Women Now for Development

During my recent trip to Lebanon, I spent time with various refugee-focused organisations, and had the privilege of meeting some inspiring Syrian grassroots activists. Here are the stories I wrote.

Syria’s ‘disappeared’: families demand to know fate of their loved ones (Guardian)

In Syria, over 60,000 people are missing – detained by the state or rebel groups. I spoke to a group of Syrian women – spread around the world – who are campaigning to find out what happened to their missing relatives.

Syrian feminists: ‘This is the chance the war gave us – to empower women’ (Guardian)

During my time in Lebanon, I spent time at the offices of Women Now for Development, a remarkable grassroots organisation. They and other feminist activists in Syria and neighbouring countries are challenging patriarchal norms, to ensure they have a place not just at the negotiating table, but in rebuilding the country after the war.

Our home became very far, very far”: how singing about Syria is bringing refugee children together (Prospect)

While I was in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley – where many Syrian refugees live – I saw a children’s choir, where songs drawing on traditional themes of longing, migration and land are giving refugee children a voice.

Karachi’s ambulance drivers

Karachi Ambulance Driver 020.jpgLate last year, I travelled to Karachi to spend a week with Muhammad Safdar, an ambulance driver for the Edhi Foundation. This is a huge charitable empire which fills many of the gaps left by the state – including the world’s largest voluntary ambulance service. In Karachi, a city that for years has been riven by gang crime and terrorist violence, the job of an ambulance driver can be perilous. The Edhi Foundation also tends to unidentified corpses, along with a dizzying array of other services.

Karachi’s ethnic conflict and violent gang war was in full flow. On his first day, Safdar went with another driver to collect one of the unclaimed bodies frequently found on the streets. He couldn’t look. The other driver slapped him in the face. “What do you think this is?” he said. “It’s a human being. What are you? A human being. Why are you behaving like this?” Safdar picked up the corpse.

“It takes time to get used to this work,” he says. “A lot of people leave after a week or so as they can’t take it. They have fear in them.”

The profile of Safdar and the Edhi Foundation was originally written for Mosaic, a magazine run by the Wellcome Trust. It was syndicated by the Guardian’s long-read section, and will be appearing in Esquire Malaysia along with a few other places. It’s accompanied by wonderful photos by Akhtar Soomro (a full gallery is available on the Mosaic website).

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Karachi Vice

A police officer I interviewed for the piece shows a death threat texted to his mobile.
A police officer I interviewed for the piece shows a death threat texted to his mobile.

Earlier this year, I travelled to Karachi (where I lived in 2012) to spend some time with the city’s crime reporters. This is one of the most crime-ridden cities in the world, plagued by political conflict, organised mafias, and now, terrorism. The city is enormous, so gang wars can change one area into a battlefield while others remain totally untouched. This is something I’ve noticed acutely when staying with family (my mother is from Karachi and many of our relatives still live there); in the luxurious houses and beautiful gardens in the elite districts, you might barely notice the tension consuming the city at large – were it not for the armed guards outside every house.

Reporting on Karachi’s crime wave and tracking the shifting nature of the threat from gang wars to terrorist strongholds is a high stakes, dangerous job. I spent some time with Zille Hyder, a television crime reporter who proudly proclaims his place on a terrorist hit-list, exploring the day-to-day reality of his job and trying to work out why anyone would choose to do something that puts their life at such risk. The piece was months in the making and I’m really proud of the result, which is published in the Guardian’s long-read section on 21 October. You can read the piece (around 6000 words) here, or the clipping is below.

It falls to Hyder and the city’s crime reporters to make sense of the throbbing disorder of Karachi. The fact that crime has infiltrated every aspect of life there puts them in the curious position of being minor celebrities; Hyder regularly receives fan mail and is often recognised in public. The Karachi airport attack shows that reporters can sometimes go overboard – but deciphering the shifts in ethnic conflict and gangland alliances is a vital job. The fate of Pakistan depends on Karachi, the megalopolis that provides a quarter of the nation’s GDP, and the fate of Karachi will be decided by the power struggles between its gangsters, terrorists, police and political groups.

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Highlights of 2013

Lubna Lal, election candidate. Photograph: Samira Shackle
Lubna Lal, election candidate. Photograph: Samira Shackle

Since the year has drawn to a close (and I’m avoiding getting started on 2014), I thought I’d post links to some of the articles I most enjoyed working on in 2013. I had a brilliantly interesting year, in which I covered Pakistan’s first ever democratic transition in May, and lots of other great stories in both Pakistan and Britain.

1. Politicians of the third gender: the “shemale” candidates of Pakistan (New Statesman)

This year was the first time that Pakistan’s “hijra” community were eligible to vote and stand in elections. I traveled to different parts of the country to meet the trans women breaking down boundaries to stand as candidates. Quite apart from the political implications, it was a fascinating insight into the world of a marginalised community.

I wrote this piece as part of a series on Pakistan’s minorities in the run up to the election, also including this piece on the Hazara, and this on the Ahmadis.

2. Syria: my journey into a nightmare war (Guardian)

Much has been made of British men joining the fight in Syria. This coverage has mainly focused on the terror threat these men pose on their return, and on the luxury of the so-called “five star jihad”. In November, I had the opportunity to interview a young British Syrian who had a very different story to tell. Motivated not by radical Islam but by the desire to fight alongside his family, he returned traumatised and disillusioned. This is one of very, very few interviews with a British veteran of the Syrian conflict to appear in the press.

3. Saving Pakistan (Prospect)

Published near the beginning of the year, this long article for Prospect took a detailed look at the scope of militancy in Pakistan and different counter-terrorism programmes attempting to combat it. What I particularly enjoyed about researching this piece was discovering a whole world of innovative – and often, it seems, effective – programmes to tackle militancy, ranging from “deradicalisation centres” to programmes to teach mothers critical thinking so that they would be empowered to question their sons.

It’s behind a paywall at the Prospect site, but the PDF is published here.

4. Pakistan’s female election candidates have bags of confidence (Guardian)

This was another article written during the run up to the May election in Pakistan. It was an election that saw a record number of female candidates including, for the first time, some from the conservative tribal areas. I interviewed female politicians and looked at the role they played in the last parliament. What I loved about doing this piece was not only speaking to inspirational women fighting extraordinary odds to secure representation, but presenting a side of Pakistan which is not often seen in the western media.

5. Why would anyone believe in the “Islamophobia industry”? (New Statesman)

I was still living in Pakistan when the horrendous attack in Woolwich took place. I watched from afar as the images of the murderers were broadcast – and as far right groups like the EDL attempted to monopolise the incident for their own ends. After I moved back to London, I wrote this in-depth piece about the ensuing backlash against British Muslims, asking whether this is something that we, as a society, need to worry about.