An evening with Axl Rose

This week, Axl Rose decided to make a rather impromptu appearance at the China Exchange in London. The purpose of this appeared to be…just a chat with fans. After initially believing the entire thing to be a practical joke or a tribute act, I elected to attend.

Since Guns N’ Roses were the first band I ever listened to and Axl is the man I credit with igniting my passion for music, it would be reasonable to assume that I am biased. However, I wrote an article several years ago entitled ‘The Fall of Axl Rose’ in which I displayed my capacity to be his harshest critic. His lack of effort and care in terms of performances, punctuality, vocal technique and everything else, made me actively oppose the idea of a GNR reunion, and I expressed doubts about an Axl-fronted ACDC. It was not the voice I lost faith in, but the man himself.However, since the GNR Troubadour performance, he seems to have been reborn. And the China Exchange event provided invaluable insight into a man it seems the world simply never understood at all.

Axl arrived half an hour late to the hourlong talk, as I had predicted based on prior evidence. In a strange twist however, it turned out the he was not at fault for this particular delay and had been ready for some time. It’s also worth noting that he has not been late for a single concert this year with either of his bands. Promising signs. Axl walked in to rapturous applause from an audience of barely a hundred fans and took his seat.

For a supposedly feisty and unhinged rockstar, Axl appeared withdrawn and shy at the beginning of the event, even audibly questioning why anyone would want to come and see him. More concerning was the increasingly arrogant and dickish behaviour of the host, Sir David Tang, who bizarrely began by asking about the last time Axl had felt ‘tenderness’. After an awkward few minutes, an acknowledgement that Axl liked dogs and cats, and the revelation that he unwinds and has showers like regular humans, it was thankfully decided that the audience Q&A should begin.

With everyone aware that this was not something Axl was used to, the opening questions were very respectful and broad, and Axl did his best to provide in-depth and relevant answers to all of them. With one of the first questions, I kept it light and asked whether he had ever felt a yearning for something outside hard rock. He replied that he had many diverse sources of musical inspiration such as Frank Sinatra, though he deemed it unlikely that he’d dabble too much in other genres, or join a jazz band as I’d suggested. Instead, he expressed his love for film soundtracks and was very keen on the idea of scoring a film one day.

Despite his initial unease, Axl quickly relaxed,seemingly enjoying the atmosphere. A running gag soon developed as I had opened my question with ‘Big fan’, and each successive person attempted to top this with increasingly complicated pre-question compliments. Realising that this was an environment of respect, admiration and adoration, rather than a a press conference, Axl invited further discussion. At one point, Tang lambasted the crowd for recording the talk, perhaps trying to be clever given Axl’s previous incidents involving recording equipment, but Axl himself was not at all bothered. Axl was busy giving lengthy, satisfying answers to each and every question as the Q&A vibe ebbed away to be replaced by something akin to a friendly group discussion. He not only made an effort, but was happily telling stories and cracking jokes for the entire session, even calling himself a ‘dictator’ in one instance.

I’ll break down what we actually learned here:

  1. Axl has always been keen to work on a film soundtrack and may do so in the future, saying ‘I was more interested in that than staying in Guns N’ Roses’.
  2. Axl does regular vocal exercises and has resumed work with a vocal coach he had stopped working with 20 years prior, since the Back In Black material is particularly demanding.
  3. Axl has a varied music taste and particularly enjoys Frank Sinatra, but doesn’t see too much branching into genres such as jazz.
  4. Axl apparently made a concious effort to make his voice ‘clearer’ for the Chinese Democracy album which he feels people did not respond to.
  5. Axl is working on new music which has been received positively by Duff McKagan and Slash.
  6. There no plans for a solo album.
  7. Axl may release his own book.
  8. Axl believes that Slash fabricated some details in his book and told him so over the phone when they patched things up in 2015.
  9. Axl feels that he and Angus Young have good chemistry and is open to working on new music with him.
  10. Slash’s new work ethic impressed Axl, as he and Duff learned the Chinese Democracy material without being prompted.
  11. There are definite plans for a Guns N’ Roses tour in the UK
  12. The current Guns N’ Roses arrangement is one that Axl hopes to keep ‘going for quite a while’
  13. In retrospect, Axl believes he should have self-released more music rather than use a large record label.
  14. Sir David Tang is a douchebag

At the end of the event, the organisers attempted to rush Axl out, and stated that he should not be approached, only for Axl to cut across and say he was happy to stay and do some signing, with his exact words being ‘I’ll do whatever you want’. Here was a man regularly depicted as high maintenance and easily provoked, who proceeded to lay waste to each and every misconception simply by being his timid and appreciative self. In that moment, we learned the most important thing about Axl Rose: He’s sincere and sensitive to the extent that he will act like he doesn’t give a fuck if he thinks the whole world is against him, but when he’s treated with a little love, he responds in kind.

This was underlined as he ignored his entourage and posed for every photo he could, and signed everything thrust in his direction. After he was ushered into the lift, I turned for the stairs and descended three floors to street level, where I was surprised to run into him again as he had opted to spend more time with fans.

As he approached his car however, he gestured to one person near him and told his entourage to call the police, then followed up with a weary ‘Fuck off man’. This behaviour was completely at odds with that of the man we had gotten to know over the last couple of hours, and it threw off all of the surrounding fans, who began to wonder what had been said to him. It was in that moment that I remembered the Zinedine Zidane headbutt of 2008.  Axl Rose has had many such moments over the course of his career, but perhaps these ‘Zidane headbutts’ have been exaggerated into a persona that doesn’t exist. He is simply a human like all of us, and he will respond to people who mess with him.

After spending over an hour with him, there was new-found respect for this man that I had misjudged. This is not some uncaring, messed-up, controlling  has-been. This is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve in an almost childlike manner. That much is apparent by simple things, such as how happy he looked to be reunited with his old bandmates at the Troubadour. And I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that these small things occur as Axl’s voice appears to be making a strong recovery. When Axl is happy to be somewhere and do something, you can get more out of him. In an informal setting with the fans, he opted for sincerity  and straightforwardness in his answers and it revealed a lot about his character. Perhaps the poor understanding of Axl’s nature is his own fault for being such a recluse and avoiding interviews or public appearances. While there are still questionable elements about Axl, such as the allegations of domestic violence, he is easily one of the most sincere and genuine people I’ve ever met, and it’s clear he gets far more bad press than he deserves. Whatever Axl Rose is, he’s not a dick.

But hey, don’t take my word for it. Take a look for yourself.

et vendebant selfies

So this week, there was some big news. Kim Kardashian decided to do what she did best…doing nothing at all while wearing nothing at all. And as usual, the world responded.

Let’s be honest here, Kim Kardashian is NOT doing this to promote a healthy body image. Nor is she doing this for her own personal ‘liberation’. She is doing this to stay relevant and avoid any possibility of declining popularity. In the same way a government will invest to stimulate an economy out of a recession or maintain an economic boom, Kim has taken action for her long-term security. Everyone’s time must come to an end eventually and she is prolonging her product life cycle as much as possible.

The ‘product’ in question happens to be Kim Kardashian’s body, which in my opinion is actually rather repulsive. It has been subject to all kinds of treatment and surgery to the point where it’s probably legitimate to call her plastic. The work that Kim Kardashian has had on herself has not only made her almost unrecognisable from the person she was only eight years ago, but also completely exposes her for the hypocrite she is. No one can say that she is simply comfortable with her body and loves herself for who she is…because she was not comfortable and this is not what she originally was.

(Before people come at me for my choice of words there, I will firmly state that the transgender debate is a completely separate issue and not applicable here)

I have a friend who not so long ago, was pretty unhappy with her features, even though she was a very good looking girl. Eventually she saw this and learned to value herself. She didn’t need nose jobs or even weight loss to accept herself. And THAT is what loving yourself truly is. And when this girl gained confidence, she would have been perfectly entitled to take whatever nude selfies she wanted to celebrate herself. However, she still knew what modesty was.

Now, what is modesty? It’s pretty simple. Modesty is the difference between being easy and being of value, being cheap and being classy, and being worthy of respect or not. And modesty is not defined by nudity. This may be a difficult concept to understand so let’s use an example.

I quite like Keira Knightley. I think she’s a very attractive woman and a very talented actress. She’s undeniably pretty but there are a few better looking girls out there. However, not only is Keira Knightley completely comfortable with who she is, she also understands the concept of modesty. Despite various challenging acting roles in an industry where nudity is becoming commonplace, Keira Knightley kept her modesty for the same reason that all people should. She eventually appeared topless in the film A Dangerous Method, because she believed her character necessitated it. And THAT is the crucial point.

Nudity in itself is not to be sneered upon or ridiculed. However, like many other things, nudity is not something that should be done unnecessarily. Perhaps I’m old-fashioned when I say this, or perhaps I have recognised the need for BALANCE in life. Balance is something that many people overlook. And right now, I’m looking directly at Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones epitomises excess. Everything about the story is unapologetic in its depiction of a universe that mirrors reality. And it succeeds…but it also does not. In its attempt to normalise, Game of Thrones will often overdo sex, violence, nudity, incest….the list is endless. There is a lot to be said for leaving certain things unseen. The writers of Game of Thrones have left out huge characters and plot lines from the books in the name of streamlining the series and making necessary adaptations for television. But this is difficult to believe when I know that of the plotlines they use, virtually EVERY SINGLE sex and nude scene has been included, with the addition of numerous extras to compensate for the sex scenes of the plotlines they left out.

George RR Martin always had a reason for including sex scenes in his books, even if this was only to establish that sex happens, just as it does in the real world. Some sexual moments were passionate and intense, and others were perfunctory. Some were pivotal to the series. But crucially, none were gratuitous. Those which were significant would be described in detail over many pages and those which were relatively unimportant would receive barely more than a line. Contrary to popular belief, George RR Martin is unlikely to have included sex scenes to pull in audience members (because that doesn’t work as well on-page anyway) or because he’s a horny old man (maybe he is but surely he wouldn’t let it factor into his work). Similarly, GRRM did not include violence that did not serve a purpose (eg. For narrative reasons or to reflect history). The infamous Red Wedding is characterised by violence, but it is inspired by real historical events. While such events illicit shock, this should never be the sole intention of the writer.

What we can take away from this is that ANYTHING gratuitous is undesirable. Be it violence, sex or anything else.

The first time Kim Kardashian pulled this kind of stunt was when she appeared on the cover of the winter 2014 issue of Paper magazine completely naked with her back to the camera. The caption ‘Break the Internet’ and the clear but misguided artistic intent of the cover appeared to hint at some deeper meaning. Perhaps there was some valuable subtext cocooned in several carefully constructed layers. However, this was not the case. A Time magazine writer commented that, unlike previous celebrities’ nudes that represented the women’s rebellion against repressed society and “trying to tear down” barriers, Kardashian’s exhibition was “just provocation and bluster, repeated images that seem to offer us some sort of truth or insight but are really just self serving. We want there to be something more, some reason or context, some great explanation that tells us what it is like to live in this very day and age, but there is not. Kim Kardashian’s ass is nothing but an empty promise.”

The issue lies not in the nudity itself. Sometimes it is very effectively and sincerely used for purposes of female empowerment. In fact, there are several uses of the naked body to further societal progression. What’s interesting and worthy of mock applause is how Kim Kardashian has managed to avoid all of them.

For example, there is a 20 year old called Sara Petty in Ohio who recently posted several revealing images of herself. What’s commendable about this is that she does not possess the figure of a model, but is currently using social media to directly charge at the issue of body-shaming and the notion of a ‘correct’ body type. She accepts that she is not thin but will not allow anyone to dictate to her what not to wear simply because her weight makes her less attractive to others. This girl did not have to go fully naked to prove her point but if she had, the reasons would have been clear.

Sometimes sincerity transcends obvious reason. Lzzy Hale, a woman I admire immensely, regularly posts risqué selfies, purely for self-celebration and her own gratification. While she also stops short of full nudity, it is impulsive and on the face of it, unnecessary action. However, it is also clear that she shares these photos with genuine human motivation. She is considered a role model to many young girls and has clearly struggled with many of their issues herself. Her risqué posts are bundled with a series of personal stories, Q&As, touring information, musician advice, direct messages, and agony aunt behaviour to countless fans who consider her a role model. And she’s undoubtedly a very good one. By posting selfies (often on request) with little thought or ‘production’ she heavily enforces very positive notions of being unapologetic about your personality, not needing make-up or dressage, and loving yourself no matter what.

Not only does Kim Kardashian evidently not give a damn about any of her depressingly large fanbase but she promotes the wrong ideals entirely. It’s not the fact that Kim Kardashian is naked. Nudity isn’t hurting anyone. But in the same way that I wouldn’t walk down the street shouting swear words at no one in particular, I also wouldn’t get naked in public. Perhaps I would consider it if I was protesting something that would be significantly helped by such drastic action. But generally, I wouldn’t just sling my junk wherever I wanted. There is a normative reason that we do not act in a way that promotes disorderly conduct. It’s something called decorum.

There’s also a phrase for what Kim Kardashian does. It’s called selling out.

Anyone who looks at Kim Kardashian’s newest photo will either call her a slut, applaud her for accepting her body, or be too mesmerised by her boobs to care either way. I personally believe that she lacks class and her body isn’t to my taste anyway. And that’s totally fine. You can think whatever you want about the selfie once it enters the public domain. You can like it or dislike it and it really makes no difference. I saw it and moved on. If I had enjoyed the selfie, I may have given it a quick ‘like’ and got on with my life. But the end result is the same. A selfie is inconsequential. Yet most people refused to move on. The selfie was discussed worldwide for several days.

While Donald Trump is winning primaries and closing in on the Republican nomination in the US, the world is fixated on a selfie. Despite the fact that many people worldwide post risqué selfies regularly, this is one that persists in the media. The reason that these stories persist is that sex sells. Society is repeatedly falling for the same overused trick.

I’m acutely aware that despite saying all of this, I’ve now also DONE all of this. The irony is not wasted on me. Writing an article about this only furthers the discussion about the selfie, which is exactly what Kim Kardashian wanted. In my attempt to vent about why people are not moving on from a selfie, I myself have not moved on from the selfie.

In the end, it makes perfect sense. I hold grudging admiration for Kim Kardashian’s strategic career moves. She has made herself a celebrity out of literally zero talent, as Paris Hilton did before her. A leaked sex tape to propel yourself to celebrity status, followed by interactions with the right people, a surreal and highly unrealistic reality show, and a failed marriage or two to push you all the way to superstardom. And then once you have done that, an occasional reminder to the world as to why you’re famous. Capitalisation on society’s flaws, smart moves and breasts. That’s what it takes to make it the Kardashian way.

Kim Kardashian and her family are not good role models. They are not to be admired or encouraged. I would be horrified if my daughter aspired to be like Kim Kardashian. That would imply that my daughter wanted an easy route through life and wanted to sell herself instead of maintain a sense of dignity and decorum.

That’s probably a really controversial view but I stand by it. Kim Kardashian is a poor example of a human being and what she does is simply disgusting. Her selfie was done in the name of self-promotion and nothing more, the same as the majority of her other ventures in life. She is simply an attention seeker who has no other way of offering anything to the world.

There is a reason that she is listed as one of the top pornstars on the popular website Pornhub. Apparently when she decided to ‘Break the Internet’, she was No1 in their pornstar rankings for months. One of my friends protested against this, arguing that there was a big difference between nudity and pornography, which I accept. But I still found it rather amusing.

Even people who are pro-Kim do not have a veil over their eyes. There are those who praise her smart ‘business-sense’ and ‘female power’ attitude in conjunction with acceptance of her strategic use of her body, which was encapsulated by comedian Celeste Barber: “She has a brand and her brand is her arse and it’s a good one.”

Perhaps the ones to be considered here are her children. In addition to being an embarrassment to humanity, Kim Kardashian is an embarrassment to them. The view was best summarised by Stormzy, as he tweeted ‘Your son will never be able to chat shit in a group chat’. From someone who has been subject to taunts from peers about a good-looking parent, I feel deeply for these children. After I considered how my mother was viewed by other students at my first secondary school, I kept quiet about her at the next one. And all she did was turn up to parent-teacher meetings and look better than the average mother. I can’t even imagine what it must be like for the young Kardashians, who will face constant reminders about their mother’s sexual escapades and other exploits from every single person they know.

Her kids will cringe when they’re old enough to realise that she became famous after a sex tape and could only stay relevant by periodically stripping for the masses. It’s really quite tragic.

We are dealing with the kind of eternal media-hungry sellout that will probably keep at the same game til surgery can’t hold her together anymore. After her sex tape was released, her biographer claimed that ‘all she wanted to do was make the tape go away’. This all changed during the lawsuit, which would have taught her much about the financial element. Instead of demanding a content ban and efforts to block distribution (Yes that kind of damage limitation is possible eg. Tulisa Contostavlos), Kardashian promptly dropped the suit for a settlement of around $5 million and a cut of all future profits. To be brutally honest, Kim Kardashian strikes me as the sort of person who, upon realising how popular her sex tape became, was probably willing to go for reshoots to release an ‘extended edition’. Because if you’re going to go for commercialism, you better to do it properly and bleed it dry for every last dollar. If there’s one thing Kim Kardashian has taught us, it’s that.

A Band-Aid Nation by Farah Mirza

[The following article is one that I did not write. However I found it impressive and am therefore compelled to share it.]

It was exactly one year ago today that we lost our children to hate. That heart wrenching cold morning was not the first for we have lost thousands of our children to this same sick hatred-filled mindset, and we continue to lose our loved ones to this day to the same sickening murdering spree in the name of religion and freedom. But the APS massacre stood out. It was unthinkable that the terrorists could enter in broad daylight so brazenly, and kill so many in cold blood. We cried as we watched on TV channels as December 16th unfolded. We cried until our tears dried up…

One year on, the question arises have we as a nation learned anything from the cold massacre of our children on Dec 16th? For over 2-3 decades, have we united as a nation to beat the enemy? The answer that boldly stares back at us is a NO…on the contrary we are divided and even more fragmented today than we were yesterday.

We are a band-aid nation covering a deep and oozing wound that has become infected and threatens to shut down our vital organs. We, the people and our leaders are afraid to look for a permanent treatment and cure for this infection..afraid to raise our voices against the wrongs in our society..living with the thought of “as long as it doesn’t happen to me it’s fine”. Well it’s not fine! Nothing is fine and will not be fine until we take a united stand against everything that is wrong in us and with us.

The notion that we can sit back and watch while an angry mob attacks a Hindu/Christian/Sikh community by burning their homes down and killing them is okay because someone allegedly disrespected the prophet PBUH…is wrong. It is unthinkable, it is inhumane..it is unacceptable!

Hazara and Shia killings continue in the land of the pure at an alarming rate but no one takes a step to stop the killings and protect them.

The callous attitude toward Ahmedis is unacceptable. Their mosques are attacked and “reclaimed”, their homes and businesses burned down  and their people murdered. A man in Lahore inciting hate and putting up banners stating Ahmedis were banned from entering shops and local businesses was released from custody, garlanded and hailed a hero by hundreds.

Hypocrisy has become a part of our DNA. I have watched many times as senior journalists and (self proclaimed) analysts on TV condemn Shiv Sena for targeting a Bollywood actor for his remarks about tolerance in India. He says “India is as much Shiv Sena’s as its Amir Khan’s” and he has the right to live the way he wishes to with freedom in India, but the same condemning journalists and analysts have not uttered a word against the people in Lahore who took out a rally against the government for removing anti-Ahmedi banners or against mullahs who preach hatred against religious minorities. I watched in horror when Gov Taseer’s murderer was showered with rose petals by lawyers as he appeared in court. We turn a blind eye, our ears go deaf and our minds cease functioning or rationalising when the fault is ours..

We are all responsible and collectively at fault for the demise of our society. The need for introspection is great and urgent in order to control this downward spiral or we may suffer more APS tragedies. We must stop being a Band-aid nation and treat the infection within us effectively before it devours us completely.

By Farah Mirza

Bella Stellaria

A lot of my posts have had an overly serious tone recently. Here’s a slightly different direction. Pretty nice title isn’t it? The title could mean a lot of things. Bella means ‘beautiful’ in Italian. Is it some philosophical dialogue on love? Astronomy maybe? Some usual otherworldly discussion with existential meaning?

As it happens, no. Bella Stellaria is Latin for Star Wars.

*The following contains spoilers for the 6 films in the Star Wars series and speculation on the upcoming installment*

Yes I know what you’re thinking but actually Star Wars is quite an intriguing concept. The original films were groundbreaking and spawned a series with a sizeable legacy and now, with an upcoming trilogy being kicked off with The Force Awakens, it seems Jedi-fever will grip the world. This week, the release of a new trailer generated incredible buzz and hype, as was the point. It seems likely that the film will be a smash hit.

The first film was revolutionary for its use of special FX back in 1977. It pushed the boundaries of film-making and the limitations of technology. It allowed schoolboy fantasies and dreams to be realised. However, the actual story of Star Wars is not actually that groundbreaking or intriguing at all. In fact, it’s laughably simple and pathetically childish at times. The story of the original trilogy can be summarised as follows:

An unassuming youth named Skywalker is forced to step up to be a hero and teams up with a couple of sidekicks and an old guy. Skywalker learns the truth, the old guy ends up dying, someone is revealed as someone’s father and they defeat the dark side.

I have seen all the films. I have to say that while entertained, I am not a hardcore fan. They were alright. I grew up while the prequel trilogy was being released and I didn’t think they were particularly memorable. In fact, I thought they were downright awful at times, mainly due to the pathetic screenwriting and dialogue and laughably poor acting of Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman. I watched the original trilogy as an adult. I enjoyed them but I felt they would have had more impact on me if I had seen them when they were originally released. Those films don’t have the same ‘wow’ effect when you’ve watched Michael Bay’s eye-gouging CGI fest of large sentient robots destroying cities and flinging Megan Fox through walls. 

Even so, one watch of the trailer for the new film filled me with incredible nostalgia and satisfaction. I like seeing things like that. I had only seen a couple of episodes of The US Office but I still ended up watching the finale and I loved the tying up of story arcs and the return of a certain character. I became a proper fan of the series afterwards. I like continuity and I love being a part of the buzz. I liked the imagery from the trailer that seemed to bring the series right back to its roots on Tatooine in A New Hope. I loved the return of the Millenium Falcon and the appearance of Han, Chewie, and even a hand that could belong to Luke. I loved the tease of more lightsaber battles. It looked great. However, with that out of my system, a second harder look at the Star Wars trailer gave me an idea of the plot. And I saw the following:

An unassuming youth named Skywalker is forced to step up to be a hero and teams up with a couple of sidekicks and an old guy. Skywalker learns the truth, the old guy ends up dying, someone is revealed as someone’s father and they defeat the dark side.

That’s what I took away from the trailer. That would be worst case scenario. Lazy, unoriginal writing. Repetition disguised as nostalgia. I would demand a refund if I saw that.

Bear with me here. We are introduced to the protagonist Rey, a runaway soldier called Finn (John Boyega) and Resistance ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). At some point, they all team up to travel the Galaxy and defeat the villain Kylo Ren.

Now a word on Rey, the staff-wielding, lone wolf ‘scavenger’ type played by Daisy Ridley. Here’s a character I’m very much looking forward to. She’s pretty attractive, can clearly handle herself and she rocks that staff. She also has a touch of the Kiera Knightley pout in certain shots. She looks totally badass and I can’t wait to see her pummel Sith Lords. 

  

Now here’s where the parallels come in and seem like more than parallels. It’s also where I display my incredible nerd capacity. When I get involved in something, I am not satisfied until I know answers to EVERYTHING and can fully immerse myself in the universe. Game of Thrones has given me sufficient practice with this, given its ridiculous array of characters and unresolved plot threads. So I have an decent understanding of Star Wars despite my distaste for some of the earlier films. So here is logic and some totally plausible options based on the established Star Wars lore. Try not to be weirded out by my nerdiness.

First off, it would not be unreasonable to assume that Rey is one of the next generation of the Skywalker family. The parallels with the previous Skywalker protagonists could not be more in-your-face. She’s unlikely to be some random kid. The original trilogy was about Luke and Leia while the prequels were about their parents. It seems natural that the sequels are about their children as George Lucas admitted himself (Disney didn’t want to use his story ideas after buying him out in 2012 but I don’t think they’d change this).

  

We don’t know her surname or indeed anything about her. According to JJ Abrams, her lack of a surname is intentional (drop MORE obvious clues why don’t you..). Now I believe that Rey is the daughter of Han Solo and Leia. I’m also willing to accept that she’s Luke’s daughter but my money is on the former. Rey also looks a lot like her possible grandmother Padme Amidala. However, officially we don’t know anything. Apart from the fact that she has some connection to Kylo Ren based on this not-so-subtle imagery in the poster..

  

We also know that she picks up a gun at some point while her companion Finn, has acquired a blue Lightsaber. Kylo Ren has a red lightsaber with a weird cross guard and is somehow very adept with the Force.

But wait…how is he adept with the Force? How does he even have that lightsaber? The Jedi build their own lightsabers which is considered a very difficult task that can take years to accomplish. They must travel to distant areas of the Galaxy and collect lightsaber crystals, then assemble them whilst subjected to Force-visions. And usually you need a mentor to show you all this. Kylo Ren’s lightsaber has never been seen before and there are no surviving Jedi or Sith left after the demise of Darth Vader and Sidious (besides Luke). So where has this guy come from? Self-taught? They better have a convincing explanation for that.

So to bring it all together, Rey is a Skywalker (though she may not even know it) and picks up her two sidekicks, a wannabe Jedi and a skilled pilot. She then meets an old Han Solo. Han provides all that exposition and at some point it gets revealed that Rey and Kylo Ren are twins and that she must take him down. Han Solo dies but not before directing Rey to the last Jedi, Master Luke Skywalker, so that she may be trained in the ways of the Force. Luke has been in exile for years, hiding from his former apprentice Kylo Ren, who fell to the dark side. He is initially reluctant but then decides to train Rey after all. Destiny and all that.

That…would be cliched, unoriginal and downright pathetic. A complete retread of the original trilogy only with a female lead. Imagine if Leia was the star of Episodes IV-VI and Luke was the sidekick along with Han. Leia is the one on Tatooine, the one who weilds the lightsaber and becomes a Jedi and the one Vader delivers that classic line to. While Luke err…makes out with Han I guess. That’s basically what this is. Right now, all signs point to something really lame like this happening. Apparently this is exactly what happens in the post-Episode VI comic series (which I’ve never bothered with). Han and Leia have twins and one of them, Jacen Solo, becomes a Sith while his sister must oppose him. That’s now non-canon and irrelevant thanks to the new films but it could still happen. And I think that isn’t the way to go.

The choice of director doesn’t fill me with confidence. I like JJ Abrams and his last film, Star Trek into Darkness, was pretty damn good. However, I noticed the obvious storytelling tropes he misused in that film. He basically reworked the story of the previous hit film The Wrath of Khan for his alternate continuity and reversed roles. This time Kirk made a heroic sacrifice and Spock led the team, both of them commenting ‘This is what you would have done’ in a moment that pretty much broke the fourth wall. I sat there going ‘Ah I get it’ to myself. Is that moment of brief acknowledgment worth being so cavalier with a huge series? And before release, Abrams and the entire cast constantly shot down reports that the villain was Khan. They fooled no-one. When Benedict Cumberbatch delivered that big reveal in the film, my reaction wasn’t quite the ‘Oh my god, I didn’t see that coming, how incredible!!’ that he was probably going for. I had been reduced to taking guesses on when exactly it would happen. The same thing has happened with Game Of Thrones. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Jon Snow will be re-appearing in Season 6. It’s difficult to keep that kind of secret under wraps when you have an actor who has to travel to film scenes in a social-media heavy world where almost all devices have cameras. The last time I was genuinely surprised by a reveal was in Iron Man 3, and that came at the expense of legendary comic-book character. Yes I was shocked but ultimately I was disappointed and it could have been done better. People know what to expect and are harder to surprise and impress. But the last thing they want is cheap tricks.

The ‘I am your father’ thing was not a cheap trick. It was a masterstroke that has been permanently embedded into popular culture. It was great and original but that’s not going to work a second time. And it’s not going to be quirky or different or ironic if suddenly the father is the good guy while the son is a Sith, or they’re brother and sister or anything like that. The prequel trilogy was filled with silly connections, incredibly cliched moments and well-intentioned but mis-delivered quips in its attempt to recapture the success of the originals. Star Wars isn’t defined by that nonsense. It’s a sci-fi action space opera which means space battles, alien races, lightsaber duels and ambitious story-telling. That means keeping with the themes but not doing the SAME THING OVER AND OVER. Michael Bay should teach them that, after numerous films eith plenty of cool fighting robots but NO PLOT WHATSOEVER. I felt the same after Man of Steel when a so-called superhero turns a city into a battlefield with devastation 1000 times worse than 9/11. No matter how cool the CGI, the lack of good story can and will bring a film down. They need to go a different way and create a moment that’s entirely different but equally gripping and dramatic.

Disney also happens to own a wildly successful production studio called Pixar for a perfect example of what I’m trying to get across. Toy Story, Frozen and Inside Out are not the same in any way but are incredible in their own way. Monsters Inc. remains my favourite film of all time. You don’t need to do the same things again and again to get those special moments. Yeah, it’s a series so they should keep the Star Wars themes throughout. But for the plot, they need something different that actually catches the audience by surprise. 

When the initial cast list came out, I’ll admit I was not blown away. It struck me as a very strange arbitrary collection of actors and I couldn’t make much sense of it given the talent that was literally queuing up to be part of the film (Yes I mean the likes of Benedict Cunberbatch). But now I understand the ‘cast new young talent’ policy that worked so well the first time. It seems to have found true gems in the form of John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, who seem to be hardworking and enthusiastic. I’ve already detailed how Ridley could easily steal my heart. And Boyega’s joyous reaction to seeing himself with a lightsaber struck a chord with me and solidified my faith in the guy. If I saw myself wielding a lightsaber, I’d do exactly that (I had a hunch and synced the audio up with the trailer to figure out what he was reacting to, it wasn’t hard)

https://instagram.com/p/9DN_LbsCtp/

That’s not to mention the presence of Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver and so many others with proven acting chops. This film could be amazing and I hope the script doesn’t let these talented actors down. They’ve kept Kylo Ren’s identity a mystery so far and they shouldn’t mess that one up. All I see so far is the director and writers playing it safe, counting on what worked well the first time. It looks the same and that’s what I really hope the Force Awakens will not be. I guess we shall see in a couple of months.

That’s probably the least conclusive conclusion I’ve ever written but hey, this is just speculation after all. There isn’t really a conclusion.

A serious turn

This blog and the subject of my posts will swing in a significantly different direction as I become more focused on politics and useful things. No, this is not my ‘entry into politics’. In fact it is no change at all from my normal armchair political commentary. Except that I will get marked for it for one of my courses at uni. So I’ll endeavour to be less lazy with future posts. Expect more articles on general political activity, current affairs and media, and a little less focus on how I’m unhappy with the latest episodes of Game of Thrones. Although depending on my mood, you may still see a bit of that..

Note: This is also the reason for the numerous references to turtlenecks that have appeared on my Twitter in recent weeks.

A statement

I’ve had a pretty insane life so far to say the least. I could write a book and it would go straight into the section marked ‘Fiction’. No one would ever believe it. Until recently, I’d always kept a low profile and would have preferred to keep it that way but sometimes it’s all over the news. So if you know of me and my family then I’d prefer it if you knew the truth. I was going to post this months ago but thought I could stay incognito. No such luck. So here’s my story.

My mother is Reham Khan. She’s a journalist and broadcaster specialising in current affairs and politics, currently based in Pakistan. And I know Imran Khan. They both (somewhat coincidentally) have the same surname. Both of them were divorced and have children. And they got married on the 8th of January 2015. Since then, I’ve seen a lot of things that need to be cleared up. So here are the facts.

Regarding Reham Khan’s personal life, every single thing stated in the January 2015 Mubasher Lucman interview was absolutely true. Reham Khan was questioned on a variety of topics, including her past experiences of domestic violence. I certainly did not expect that and she was also unprepared. She should be applauded for her strength and courage for speaking about it the way she did.

Since that interview a lot of ‘eyewitnesses’ have appeared to supposedly trash the ‘baseless lies’. This is very strange since I have only two sisters and no one else lived with us and shared those awful experiences. They should be the only eyewitnesses to what happened. I have begun checking the attic and cupboards in my house in case I find some more of these omniscient, ever-present people (To clarify, that is sardonic humour).

Reham Khan did not mention anyone by name, or anything about her divorce in 2005. She calmly acknowledged her past experiences. While I did not expect silence from the other party or an ‘Ok you got me, I did it’, the actual response was unbelievably shocking. Having said that, the comments from the other side are not anywhere near as appalling as is the willingness of people to believe the worst they hear of Reham.

The person in question is not someone I consider family or relation. My surname has been Khan for the last 10 years. I have put it all behind me. But when I think of what happened, I am absolute. Do not dare try to tell me that I have been misinformed. My eyes do not deceive me. I know what I have seen and experienced first-hand.

To say that it never happened because it never came to light is laughable. We live in a society where more than 80% of rapes are not reported. Domestic violence, even physical, is very difficult to prove. But I remember police officers coming into my house. I even have documents and divorce papers. I’m not surprised he’s now appeared personally to make his ‘claim to fame’ but I am surprised that he persists with lies when he knows we have evidence to prove him wrong. There’s only one reason he doesn’t have a criminal record. My mother could have destroyed his career but she chose to protect us from further trauma and move on to give us a safe, secure and better future. She counted her blessings and didn’t press it. He should have taken his second chance.

IMG_0982-0
IMG_0986-0

(Note: Our details have been blurred out due to the Children Act 1989 and Administration of Justice 1960. We actually obey the law.)

Yes that’s right. Significant violence against the defendant and the children. In the absence of any typical support network of family or friends, she finally filed for divorce after 13 years. The first thing I said to her was ‘You should have done it sooner. I’m always by your side’. I was 12 years old. I’d been seeing it for years. That sort of abuse makes a serious impact on a kid. I haven’t forgotten anything.

Do those ‘eyewitnesses’ recall my mother working two jobs to support us, one on the other side of the country? Do they remember my family being evicted from our home on my sister’s birthday? Do they remember how he fled to Pakistan with his assets and left his family for dead? People keep close what is important to them. For my mother, it was never money. It was us. No child support was received until he returned to the country in 2009 and the CSA tracked down his address. And then they were stopped at the earliest opportunity. I handle her bank accounts so I know exactly how much was paid. I don’t consider that as any ‘support’. But my mother has never needed his or anyone else’s money and he is not my father in anything besides technicality. And I’m not saying this in anger, I’m being very matter-of-fact.

I’ve heard that Reham Khan should ‘apologise for the slur on his good name and character for he has never raised his hands on anyone and has always taken care of his children’. That did get an incredulous laugh out of me. It’s not a slur if it’s the truth. And why doesn’t anyone apologise for the slur on her name? Or more accurately, the character assassination? The disgusting slander is what led me to write this.

To clarify: We do not live with our biological father, nor do we ever intend to see or hear from him again. This is something we told the courts on 3 separate occasions, who did not allow any direct or indirect contact, with our well-being in mind. This person and all those associated with him are on a new level of depravity. Shame on everyone who believed and supported a known abuser. A person who has been harassing my family non-stop for the last 23 years. Even now, he seeks to bully and intimidate. It no longer works.

I honestly don’t understand how anyone could support the harassment through social media. No one else has such detailed information and access to documents such as birth certificates. The source of the hate campaign could not be more obvious. And it’s very clever in the way it plays on the bigoted and backward mindsets of a fair few in the country. No-one seems to comment on the disturbing and invasive process in which every single moment of my mother’s life is routinely examined and twisted to be used against her. I could count on one hand those in the media who actually believe in integrity and honest reporting. There are certain so called ‘journalists’ in Pak that do everything in their power to propagate the lies.

So there’s the truth. End of story. Ultimately, this is all in the past and really not worth talking about.

My mother and I are a team. Along with my sisters, we’ve formed an unassailable unit. I’ve done whatever I can to support her over the last decade, which has involved keeping our very existence a secret. Maintaining privacy as she became well-known was important for various reasons, including harassment from this person and those foolish enough to believe him. I saw it all coming. Until the news broke, that was working rather nicely.

Nothing of our personal life is actually anyone’s business. In that interview, Reham Khan simply drew on her past to bring to attention the very serious issue of domestic violence. She is trying to help and contribute, just as she has done for the IDPs, the Peshawar victims, the Street Children and so many others. Her love for Pakistan shows in everything she does. Despite her TV work and film productions, she makes time to voluntarily work for the underprivileged and encourages us to do so as well. By seeing Pakistan through her eyes, we have come to love it as she has. I have seen how warmly she is received wherever she goes. Our eternal complaint has been that she never takes a moment’s rest. She has focus and a furious sense of national pride and patriotism which we could use more of. Rather than questioning her and calling her a liar, people should help her and do some good in the world.

Reham Khan is an incredibly strong and dedicated woman who has raised me and my sisters single-handedly while also working since the divorce 10 years ago. She resolved to never let us down and she never has. She’s remains fiercely financially and emotionally independent, even in her capacity as Mrs Imran Khan. Some time ago, while trying to describe her, I settled for some triadic structure in the form of Journalist, Anchor…Fighter. She laughed but I insisted on keeping ‘fighter’. Because that’s what she is.

To those still bitter about the marriage: Grow up. You don’t get a say in anyone’s personal life. Be happy for them or keep it to yourself. Most people have done exactly that and we all appreciate the kind words and support from well-wishers. Those who sent hateful messages and death threats are certainly in the minority. Imran Khan is not a fool. He’s certainly smart for realising just how special my mother is and what she has overcome. It’s about time someone did.

I could not be more proud of her for what she has achieved and who she is. She is my biggest inspiration and always will be. And if you have any sense, she should be yours too.

The Judicial Commission: Eyes Wide Shut

This week saw the findings of the Judicial Commission of Pakistan made public after months of inquiry. For the uninitiated, this was an attempt to provide some measure of accountability and confidence in the newly established democratic system of Pakistan, which attempted its first peaceful handover of power from one party to another in 2013. However, this was far from a smooth transition, with allegations of election rigging adding to a state of panic and political confusion in the nation. After lobbying and protests from opposition parties, the Judicial Commission was established to investigate the rigging claims. After several months, the results of this inquiry were finally made public. However, the contents of the report produced an eclectic mix of disappointment and confusion among thousands who were hoping for justice following the 2013 elections.

The Commission identified numerous anomalies in the 2013 election process and  was quick to pick out someone to blame. In this case, it was the Election Commission of Pakistan. An examination of the ECP’s perceived failings, according to the JC, reveals some very interesting details. The ineptitude of the ECP is unquestionable, perhaps exemplified by the fact that only four designated official printing presses were used, which were not sufficient. At the last minute, the production had to be outsourced to a new printing facility. This can be put down to either poor organisation or direct intervention and the JC declared that it was the former. Even if that is taken at face value, it is far from ideal. Pakistan seems to have an Election Commission that is either incompetent or irrelevant, a sad truth which was even acknowledged by the JC. When considering the discrepancies between different ballot formulas being used in Punjab, the JC report stated, “The ECP either did not know about this or chose not to comment on it.” (Page 223, point 701)

However, was the ECP the only entity at fault? There were many excuses given and objections waived away by the Judicial Commission. The lack of specialised equipment which would ensure forensic validity was also be attributed to poor planning. The development of a unique (and ultimately useless) ink to cross-check votes was deemed “an exercise in futility” and nothing more. The designated Results Management System was not deployed on Election Day. The ECP did not even have its own storage space for polling bags, 11 years and two elections after its formation. The report stated that post-election material was stored outside of the ECP’s custody and in highly inadequate conditions (page 212, point 684a-i). However, the purpose of storage space is so that polling bags can be produced as evidence when required, which was clearly extremely difficult to accomplish post-election. The report further talked about the lack of ECP training and coordination as well as general disorganisation (page 217, point 685).

Despite the obvious issues with the ECP, it does not seem to be the sole cause of the irregularities in the 2013 elections and it is difficult to accept the JC’s cast-iron ‘case-closed’ conclusion. Arguably, the most worrying part of the report was the disclosure of the numbers of excess ballot papers (again put down to the shortcomings of the ECP). The reason there was little uniformity between excess ballot papers in different constituencies across Pakistan was supposedly because of lack of communication of the “formula”. The instructions, as provided by the ‘Action Plan’, to order excess ballots, were not followed (page 211, point 684). The simple formula stipulated that the “number of ballot papers for each polling station will be rounded off to the next hundred” (page 173, point 574, viii, a). The report notes that the calculated amount using the formula was a far cry from the real numbers, particularly in Punjab, and this is attributed to poor communication.

The excess as calculated by the Action Plan was supposed to be roughly 8% across Pakistan, but in constituencies in Balochistan it was more than 10%. “It is unclear whether rounding up on a polling station-wise basis as per the instructions contained in the Action Plan was complied with” concluded the JC report (page 212, point 684b). To anyone with a basic understanding of arithmetic, it is clear that the Action Plan was not complied with, as 8% and 10% are two distinct figures. In fact, in NA-125, a figure of 28.1% extra ballot papers was quoted. How can the obvious huge difference between 8% and 28% be “unclear” to the judiciary? If that is the case, how can Pakistan possibly expect any conclusive results from an inquiry?

The report goes on to state that evidence was provided solely with respect to Punjab — Lahore in particular — Karachi and a “small part” of Balochistan. There was no evidence mentioned for Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P). Also, despite the previously discussed 10% excess ballot paper issue, the JC deemed the irregularities in the majority of Balochistan to be negligible, as well as those in Sindh. Therefore, the evidence in these regions was ignored and not factored into the conclusion (page 232, point 732). 

In Baluchistan, the statistics showed a minimum of approximately 18-19% excess ballots (NA271 and NA268). The standout was NA125 in Lahore with 28.1% amounting to a massive 120,515 extra ballots. Most areas with such ‘irregularities’ were won by the PML-N. 

In the case of Lahore’s NA-130, the returning officers (RO) stated that they had not received any guidelines and determined the need for ballot papers based on their own judgement, despite the accepted notion that no-one at a polling station should have the authority to request extra ballot papers. However, the RO at NA-130 decided to follow his own version of the formula; 238 polling stations with three booths each, equals 714 booths in total. After rounding this up, the RO somehow arrived at the figure of 74,000 extra ballots, which were requested for a constituency that had a turnout of approximately 150,000 (page 177, point 580). 

Sohail Shoukat Butt of the PML-N won NA-130 with approximately 88,000 votes. This is exactly double the 44,000 Samina Khalid Ghurki (PPP) received in the same constituency in the 2008 election. The voter turnout and margin of victory were both 40-50,000 votes higher. The fact that there were 40,000 more votes and they seemingly all went to the winning candidate is suspicious in itself. This may mean that the actual number of voters might have been less than in 2008. Maybe that is why there were only 40,000 extra votes out of a potential 74,000. Perhaps not all of the excess ballots were actually used to manufacture votes. Or maybe it took a couple of attempts each time to perfect. After all, forging a signature is a straightforward task but still easy to get wrong. Forging a vote might need a bit more practice.

If we assume (using the 74,000 figure) that those extra ballots were used to rig the voting, we would also naturally assume that it was successful and the rigged candidate won. Take away those 74,000 unaccounted votes and he’s left with only 14,000 votes. A quick look at past results shows that NA-130 is basically Samina Khalid Ghurki territory, as she had swept to victory with roughly 40,000 votes in the previous elections. With impressive consistency, she again brought in 33,000 in 2013, but this time she was somehow light years behind the winner.

Furthermore, approximately 35% of Form 15 were found to be missing upon inspection of the bags. Form 15 details the number of votes not cast in a constituency. Without this, there is nothing to prevent someone from supplementing a candidate with illegitimate votes. The leftover votes can be taken and simply allocated after noting the absentees (which is particularly easy if you have a large amount of extra ballots on hand). Form 15 was shown to be missing with alarming frequency in constituencies throughout Pakistan, seemingly without pattern. Perhaps, the lack of a pattern means that it was a mistake after all. Or perhaps, it is because disposing of Form 15 was simply an unplanned opportunistic tactic, only undertaken where the perpetrators were certain they could get away with it (page 183, Point 584).

In another section, the report bizarrely states that there were more votes than voters. This lone sentence on page 177 details ‘4.12% average votes in excess of the number of registered voters’, which implies the equivalent of 104.12% turnout. The precise meaning of this section was unclear, particularly since the election turnout had previously been estimated at 55%, and was potentially just down to the poor English of a report which was clearly not drafted well or proofread.

Now to address the concluding remarks and Terms of Reference of the JC report. The first one asks: “Were the elections organised and in accordance with the law?” In response, the report concludes: “Having considered all these factors the Commission is of the view that notwithstanding the shortcomings of the ECP, the 2013 general elections were in large part organised and conducted fairly and in accordance with the law.”

By the report’s own admission, the ECP was to blame for a badly organised and poorly executed election. And it actually doesn’t matter whether the issues were the result of rigging or ECP failure. Either way, the election was compromised. That simple logical conclusion invalidates the first TOR, which in turn invalidates the third TOR as well, for if the election is not fair in how it processes votes then how can the result possibly be correct? The election result was not truly reflective of the wishes of the electorate. No one can judge what the result of the election would have been had they been held without all the ‘irregularities’ that had been detailed.

On the subject of the second TOR, the JC report stated: “The plan or design was not specified by PTI and the allegations remain unsubstantiated by the evidence on record”. But was it the PTI which was presented with all the available evidence? Was it their job to deduce the plan? On the contrary, that was the main purpose of the Commission: to investigate possible mechanisms for interference and corruption.

The report is full of illogical statements and draws nonsensical conclusions from the evidence. It actually SUPPORTS the rigging allegations while explicitly stating the opposite. It should be noted that the report was first sent to the Prime Minister and his lawyers. Had the report not been acceptable to the PML-N, it may never have been made public at all. It appears that the system may be too rigid and corrupt for any real progress to be made. Change from within seems a fanciful notion.

The best advice anyone can give is this: Look at it yourself. I urge anyone who takes the future of Pakistan seriously to read the report and assess the evidence. Make your own conclusions. After analysing it fully, the feel was very much ‘Here is the evidence. It was all just a series of harmless mistakes. We blame the ECP’. I completely disagree. I was always of the opinion that organised rigging took place in the 2013 elections. Exactly how it was done was something that I had hoped the JC would deduce. But this wasn’t even attempted. The kind of ‘irregularities’ seen could never have been solely due to the failures of the ECP. Direct interference and malpractice is the only logical conclusion. For decades, Pakistan turned a blind eye to corruption. This is a country where political manipulation is legitimised and covered-up. And if we continue to accept this and still do not act, what hope is there for a better Pakistan?

By Sahir Khan