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Other writing: On the Virtues of Clarity

Extract from an article which appeared in in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant in 2008:


It struck me to begin with that nothing could be more at odds with what I was trying to write about than cool, green and leafy Amsterdam. In the first few days of cycling around I would often pause on the arched bridges to gaze in awe at the tranquil canals. At night, with the lights shimmering on the water, the city appeared even more enchanting.

I planned to use my time here working on material gathered over the past few years on the conflict in Darfur. Amsterdam, I hoped, would give me a chance to see things with a fresh eye, but within a few days I found myself starting to examine my surroundings more carefully.

I was drawn to the huge windows that face onto the canals. As dusk falls, the darkened interiors emerge slowly in a muted electric glow. Illuminated against their  surroundings, these rooms appear to hover in the air, caught in a subtle geometry of shadow and light. Each window resembles a stage set in a theatre. Everything is perfectly in place, but the stage remains empty. The actors are always absent.

I know very little about the history of this country. Were the magnificent displays along the grachten a form of declaration, I wondered? A statement by a people who have whittled God down to a manageable size? Let him look into our homes, we have nothing to hide? Spinoza, I had read, aside from being a leading thinker of the Dutch Enlightenment, was also highly knowledgeable in the use of lenses for optical instruments. Huygens admired Spinoza for his telescopes and microscopes rather than for his lofty thoughts. Did this say something about those open windows? The Muslim world is cluttered with opacity. And concealed behind that veil of modesty lies an obsession with purity. What food you eat. Which foot you use to step into the bathroom. All of these things matter, even if there is no one to see you doing them. Here I was faced with the opposite, or so it would seem.

Within a few days of my arrival the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, declared that he was seeking to charge Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir on several counts of genocide. He would prove that al-Bashir masterminded and implemented a plan to destroy in substantial part the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa groups because of their ethnicity. “His alibi was counterinsurgency,” he declared of al-Bashir, “His intent was genocide.”

So here was a line passing straight from the heart of this country to my subject. I felt, however, that something was wrong. If the charges were upheld and al-Bashir prosecuted, where would that leave the people of Darfur? All chances of a peace settlement would be lost once the president had been condemned to the rather humiliating position of being a criminal in the eyes of the world. Was justice more important than peace?


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