Walking the shark

The shark, Hemiscyllium halmahera, uses its fins to wiggle along the seabed and forage for small fish and crustaceans – ‘walking shark’ discovered in Indonesia – The Guardian

I caught up with the shark as he was promenading off Bali the other day and he was in a bit of a rueful mood. ‘Wiggle? I ask you, do I wiggle?’ he mewled, sounding aggrieved and displaying several rows of sharp teeth in what I initially mistook for a threat but later realised was just his way of sneering. He distractedly masticated a bucketful of small fish and crustaceans that the bountiful seas of Indonesia deposited straight into his mouth as if from a conveyor belt. We pulled up some rocks around a tabletop of coral and sat down to chew the fat for a couple of minutes. ‘Oooh, big deal, a walking shark,’ he snorted. ‘As if we hold the presses every time we see an underwater human or one that has a decent taste in sushi.’ With one swell bite he took the side off a passing grouper, loudly saying ‘yummy’ and looking very pleased with himself. ‘Listen, this whole walking thing is a bit of a scam. Of course we prefer to swim, have you tried walking at this depth?’ He did a comical impression of maneuvering a giant umbrella into a hurricane. ‘We just do it to blend in.’ I nodded understandingly, ‘right, to avoid the shark fin hunters.’ The sitting shark growled at me contemptuously, ‘Most of those supposed fins are flippers that we tear off gormless divers like you and then stick to our backs. Ever wondered why they taste so rubbery? No, we walk to avoid having to bribe the coast guard. They suspect that we sharks make money posing for tourists and they want their cut. It confuses them when we walk. But thanks to that bloody newspaper article, they’re on to us.’ I nodded sympathetically, ‘yes, I wish the press would mind its own goddamn business.’ We silently watched the fish trying to scramble away from us for a while, the shark contemplating the vagaries of life and me enjoying the oxygen as an underwater hubbly bubbly. ‘You’ve got a bit of seaweed stuck to your upper lip,’ I solicitously pointed out to the shark. He scowled at me, ‘that’s my version of a holiday beard, having no chin and all. Actually, after having seen Jeremy Paxman’s attempt, I think I’m doing rather well,’ he said a bit smugly. ‘Sorry,’ I blurted, trying hard not to stare. ‘So, where did you summer this year?’ The shark sighed and gave its version of shrugging its shoulders, which would have been the subject of another excited article had any scientists or journalists been around: a shrugging shark! ‘We went to see my cuz in the Med. The place has become a dump,’ he answered disgustedly. I nodded in agreement, ‘yes all the tourist development can get a bit much.’ Once again the shark looked at me as if he’d run in to an uncomprehending mollusc that could not be eaten and had to be endured. ‘No, no. It’s just that on the European side they always used to dump lots of good stuff into the sea. Whole sides of beef sometimes in Greece. Those guys knew how to waste their souvlaki on a grand scale. But now, nada!’ I wanted to point out that he was mixing his Greek and his Spanish but thought better of it; you don’t want to annoy a shark, not even a walking one. He wasn’t done yet with his holiday gripes. ‘And off Syria, where we often used to find these bodies floating in the sea, as if they were executed by some madman but never mind, I got the most horrible chemical taste in my mouth and I was sick for days. I tell you, that ruined my break well and truly.’ I tutted in sympathy, ‘well at least you’re OK now and back home safe and sound.’ The shark started getting up from the rock he had been squatting on, ‘Yes, back to the grind of freaking out tourists.’ As he ambled away he called over his shoulder, ‘I’ve had it with Europe and the Middle East. Next year I’ll focus more on Asia, so catch you here again if you’re around.’ I watched him wiggle away, yes he did wiggle, and resolved firmly to stay home next year; who wants to hang out with a grumpy, hungry and sick shark, with blisters on its fins to boot?

Taking a dive

I’ve always been fascinated by that stuff. I want to experience what it’s like to be in a war

OK, I know I’m banging on about the war but ’twas not my intention when I came here for a nice weekend of diving. Bali, the island of the gods of mass tourism, complete with underwater traffic jams and prepubescent Legong dancing girls. Yet even here the war catches up with you, well me, in unexpected ways. And by the way, for someone used to the Middle East Bali’s supposedly strict security measures may seem touchingly low-key at the moment.

Anyway, on my first dive trip, and the drive to the site of the wreck of the USAT Liberty, I was joined by two gregarious young Americans, students at Wharton who just started a six month stint in Singapore, Ben and Arman. They duly asked me what I did for a living followed immediately by, “ever been to any war zones?”. For the next four hours, except underwater where talking is frowned upon, they continued to question me relentlessly on the subject. One of them in particular unhesitatingly expressed an interest in the mechanics of war, the personal danger etc. including the desire to actually be in a war. Short of joining up that is. I suppose because you don’t squander a degree from Wharton on the army.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with either of these seemingly reasonable and well-travelled business students. They sounded sincere and very well-informed. Who says that today’s students don’t follow the news?

What did strike me was their interest in my war stories. I’ve written before that usually people’s eyes start glazing over when I talk about my job and what I did in some conflict areas. I always thought it was me, the way I told it. But these two, a bit too long only to be polite, seemed genuinely interested, in the physical reality of the journalist, in the details of war and in some broader policy questions. They asked why journalists keep doing it if so many get killed. So sue me, I may have hammed it up a bit. Or maybe not so much. Maybe it’s an age thing and the people in my cohort have heard it all before. Who knows. Maybe it’s just that war is indeed a young men’s game and the younger we are, the more we’re fascinated by it.

We did two dives to the wreck of the US Army Transport Liberty, an American warship that was torpedoed off Bali during WWII. The two war-curious Wharton students thought the first dive a bit dull,we stayed well clear of the structure and just watched the marine life. But they went all hooyah over the second one when we ducked through some openings and hovered really close. None of it means much, except that I went for a dive.


The Balinese coast at Candidasa

Egypt, when activists turn on journalists

Amidst all the turmoil in Egypt, one aspect may have by-passed the casual observer. Foreign reporters and commentators have become targets for the ire of some of the very same activists, bloggers etc. who supported the ‘coupvolution’ that deposed Mohamed Morsi and who say that they stand for human rights, democracy and freedom of expression. It has given rise to such choice blog headlines as ‘Fuck Western Media’. These critics seem to be irate at correspondents not completely buying into their own line of reasoning. From mild charges of ‘misrepresentation’, the accusations at times veer into the realm of conspiracy theory. With the press and foreign correspondents under attack anyway in Egypt, we really don’t need that from the supposed democratic part of the commentariat. I have published a piece on it on openDemocracy.

Just to show that I’m not the only one noticing this trend among activists, here’s a tweet by a Swedish journalist on a similar phenomenon. He draws a straight line from how the party of Hosni Mubarak, the NDP, and then the Muslim Brotherhood, the MB, used to address foreign reporters to what he hears nowadays:

I don’t want to single out any activist, blogger or tweeter and many seem to have moderated their views as the situation has unfolded. Also, many of the online attacks on the media come from more conservative sources who probably used to be aligned to the Mubarak regime and now have thrown in their lot with the mass protest movement and the army. Still, whatever the practical contingencies, that’s not fit intellectual company for those who champion freedom. This is not about muzzling the critics of the Western press but it’s about not fanning the flames of incitement at a time when reporters get physically assaulted, arrested, intimidated and worse.