The ‘cold war’ days were surprisingly more carefree, warm and free

Strangely, there was far more tolerance,cordiality and luxurious lifestyle during the ‘cold war’ years than now. Globalisation has destroyed cities and civilisations

1960’s Kabul
1960’s Kabul

Saeed Naqvi

Pictures of unrelieved despair everywhere on TV and that too in the course of an extended house arrest (lockdown), does leave one, to use Faiz’s words, with “pain where the heart once was”. Heaven knows there were problems earlier too, but in these days of stress, I reflect on the period of the ‘cold’ war with an almost irreparable sense of loss.

The period spanned my childhood, between my village and Lucknow, employment at The Statesman, The Indian Express, with papers in London, Boston and Salem, Massachusetts. All of this without religion ever being an obstacle in the three continents where I worked.

During my spell at Salem, my wife and I lived in nearby Marblehead where we were much pampered members of the prestigious North Shore Jewish Community Centre, something unthinkable in the post 9/11 Islamophobia.

I find it difficult to believe at this distance in time, the warmth with which the gorgeous Bathsheba Hermon, donning a large straw hat, Public Relations Officer for the Jerusalem Municipality, received me at Ben Gurion airport.

The year was 1969. An Australian lunatic had set fire to the Al Aqsa mosque. Israel in those days was a series of cooperatives called Kibbutz, collectively owned by the inhabitants, an almost dreamy kind of socialism. Total partiality to the Palestinian issue on my part did not obstruct a benign contemplation of the Kibbutz system. This response must be attributed to two factors – attractions of soft socialism and Bathsheba Hermon as the tour guide.

Hard to believe in the days of the Ayatollahs that one route from Ben Gurion to New Delhi was via Tehran. North Tehran those days was Paris to the power of infinity. Compared to Beirut, Tehran was, well, tinsel. European cosmopolitanism with an Arab soul best defined Beirut. Casino du Liban and the Crazy Horse Casino (which came from Paris for seasonal spells) and pubs, restaurants, café sparkled with conversations. Beirut was the world’s most charming city, the only one where sport enthusiasts could, within the space of two hours, ski and swim in sea. The metropolis never could rediscover its élan after Israeli Defence Minister Ariel Sharon’s brutal invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Cairo’s early Arab socialism had its attractions but intellectual life centered largely around Nasser’s moves, revealed in Hassanein Heikal’s columns in the Al Ahram which were debated and scrutinised for the entire week. Whatever the limitations of the system, editorials did matter because they were the bridge between public opinion and the state. They provided insights into what policy makers were thinking.

Post-Cold War Murdochisation of the media afflicted all continents; it proceeded hand in hand with glo balisation, whose central grid was to be in Washington. The collapse of that project and global establishments obstinately stonewalling any change in direction is at the heart of our current misery.

Even though Australian multicultural experience could never measure up to Canada’s, the period between the cold war and its end, was exactly when Australia was at its most relaxed, particularly after Prime Minister Malcolm Frazer (1975-83) buried for good Australia’s “White only” policy. Slowly multiculturalism picked up, the odd Pauline Hanson, Australia’s Marine Le Pen, notwithstanding. I remember interviewing a Chinese Mayor of Sydney in the late 80s or early 90s.

The project was hit for a six when Prime Minister, John Howard and Britain’s Tony Blair hitched their wagons to President George W Bush’s Islamophobia – all post-cold-war, remember. For peace on earth, it was a terrible trio.

Indian multiculturalism was weak in its foundation and even in the golden period I faced considerable prejudice in finding a house until Kuldip Nayar and Bikram Singh, intervened. That intervention is totally missing today.

Popular discontent was crying for policies that would redistribute wealth, strengthen the welfare net, provide universal health care, education, universal basic income. It suited establishments to duck economic demands. Instead, popular discontent was channelised into the gutters of identity politics.

In India, identity politics translates quite simply into communalism which already had lethal inputs from “1,200 years of foreign subjugation” (Modi’s phrase) and caste. And yet we have the same, tired list of economists paraded on our TV screens proposing ways to “place the economy on track”, the unmistakable assumption being that the “tracks” have been laid to perfection.

With Coronavirus on a gallop and the economy in free fall, I wonder if millions who have walked will be satisfied with dollops of identity politics alone. Some bread may be required.

Meanwhile, all the cheerful places mentioned in the snippets from my diary from 60s to the 90s have today been transformed into desolations by the authors of the post Cold-War world.

And I have not even mentioned the wilful destruction of Tripoli, 1960's Kabul Damascus and Baghdad.

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