Where boys are little gods with little compassion
It is the burning question of our day: how can society resist those who seek to force change using violence and intimidation? Why do some find it so easy to hurt man and beast? Can childhood be an apprenticeship for future extreme behaviour? What are the dangers of raising boys to believe that they are untouchable – little gods who Can walk on water?
Maybe the treatment of animals is a good place to start.
'Compassion for animals is intimately connected with goodness of character; and it may be confidently asserted that he who is cruel to animals cannot be a good man.' Arthur Schopenhauer.
One afternoon, I was at home in the Bedouin village in southern Jordan, taking refuge from the burning sun. I had become used, if not inured, to a favourite pastime of the local boys. They would tie string or electric cable around the necks of two dogs and goad them into fighting each other. The barking of the dogs was a terrible, terrible sound. It was no prelude or psyching-up for the fight but a cry of desperation. 'How can we best survive this?' I felt they were saying. 'Shall we pretend to fight until they get bored and find something else to do?' In the past, I had tried to stop such activity, only to have the boys run away, laughing at me. No other adult ever intervened.
This particular afternoon, the sound was so desperate and so close to my house that I went out to investigate. A neighbour's teenage son, surrounded by six younger children, was holding a ten week old puppy in his hands. I was spared the sight of what had caused the creature to cry out because the youngsters shouted at him,
"J'anna ta'al. J'anna ta'al. Joanna's coming. Joanna's coming."
"Inta cowie? Does that make you feel brave?" I asked. The children could see how angry I was and they ran home. The teenager slunk away, laughing as he went. My punishment for such audacity was swift in coming. Less than twenty minutes later, one of my neighbour's daughters came to fetch me. She led me to the covered area that lay between the back of my house and the wadi wall. At the far end, a heavy metal grill had been erected to give me some privacy. Hanging on the grill by one of its back legs was the puppy. The creature was silent, too traumatised even to whimper. Its heart was beating so fiercely that it nearly burst from the little body. I tried to reassure it as I took the weight of its body in my hands. Its paw was bleeding from the deep cut that the thin wire had made. Later, I reported the incident to the family upstairs but it was not considered sufficiently important to be mentioned to the boy's father.
On another occasion, welcome heavy rain was falling as I went up to my car. Some girls called to me and pointed to the four year-old brother of one of them, some twenty yards away. I ran through the rain to where he was. A tiny, sodden puppy of about eight weeks was cowering against a stone. The boy was bombarding it with the biggest stones that his hand could hold. As I approached him, he stopped what he was doing in order to offer me his hand in greeting. I ignored it, grabbed him by the scruff off the neck and frog-marched him towards his home. He started to cry; not because he was afraid of getting into trouble, but because I had returned his greeting and because I had put a stop to his game. I am quite certain that he had no idea that what he was doing was wrong.
Generally speaking, the boys are not interested in toys. Their entertainment lies in mischief or in capturing young pigeons and rendering them flightless.
Boys are hardened against violence from the moment they can walk. On more than one occasion, I have seen fathers suddenly slap their sons' faces. The boys' diaphragms always lurch at the shock of the blow. A lack of reaction and a defiant smile always won the fathers' approval.
When boys are old enough to go to school, they will spend their first two years in classrooms at the girls' school. The atmosphere there is kinder with the risk of bullying and playground violence removed. That school ends earlier too, so that they can be home before the older boys are on the streets.
One of the biggest eyesores in the village is the skeleton of the children's playground. There are uprights but no swings. There are bases but no roundabouts or see-saws. There are bench legs but no seats. Children are never found there. It is overlooked by the girls' school. One of the teachers told me that she had watched from her classroom as the government workers constructed the playground. There were palm trees to provide shade and colourful accessories to make the rides attractive. Within two hours of the men leaving, their work completed, the bell of the boys' school sounded, signaling home-time. The boys fell upon the playground like soldier ants, breaking everything in sight and dismantling all that their bare hands could manage. Everything that could be taken, was taken. None of the boys, or their families, had any use for the materials gained. The game was who could get the most.
Once away from the play area, their prizes were simply discarded in the road, on the pavements and on the hillsides.
A common occurrence in my neighbours' houses was a demand from the boys that their sisters bring them water. "Jib myah. Bring me water." Often, the girls grumbled and initially refused but the coaxing of the parents ensured that the water was fetched. If the girls were unusually determined, the mothers fetch the water; all in the presence of the fathers.
One boy, the youngest and most indulged of his siblings, was a hero in his set for his audacity. One day I was standing on the main road through the village, waiting to guide some visitors to my house in a back street. I was facing the road, looking out for their car, when, suddenly, I felt a stinging slap on my bottom that absolutely took my breath away. I wheeled around to see the boy running away, pursued by his laughing friends. He was seven years old at the time and I was sixty three.
In all societies that I know, there are unwritten and unspoken rules which govern the movement of pedestrians. As you walk along, your peripheral vision helps you to judge who has the right of way if the space narrows or two ways cross. Not so throughout Jordan. Men and boys expect women to give way in any circumstance. Commonly, whether I was on a street in Amman or wandering through Petra on Fridays, the Sabbath, when most visitors are Jordanian or from the Gulf, men and boys, would drift at will. I always insisted on holding my line. When a collision was imminent and they became aware that their expectations were not being met, they would recoil as from a red-hot poker.
The worst example of a lack of humanity in boys occurred on a quiet afternoon in October 2008. The peace that afternoon was broken by the rising sound of jeering boys. Sometimes, as I have said, their prey was a puppy, sometimes a sick donkey. That particular afternoon the object of their attention was a 13 year-old boy whom I will call Faisal.
He was my neighbour's nephew; tall for his age, but much of his height was lost to deformity. He walked with difficulty, lop-lopsidedly, because there was a bony growth on one sole. He stooped. His forearms drooped, his head dipped onto his chest and his tongue hung out. He couldn't speak. The only things that emerged from his mouth were grunts and a constant stream of saliva.
That afternoon he had strayed away from his home where he was usually locked in an inner room if his mother or sister needed go out. He was being driven along the wadi bottom by a pack of 20 boys aged between 4 and 12 years. As I watched, two boys threw stones at him, herding him as they would one of their goats. A car drew up on the dusty track alongside them. The driver got out, saw what was happening and shouted at the boys. They started to scatter and I hoped against hope that Faisal's trial had ended. It hadn't. The man went into his house without looking back to see if his instructions were being followed. They weren't. The moment his back was turned, the boys regrouped.
I had to do something. I covered my arms. If I was to have any hope of imposing any authority, I needed to be 'modestly dressed.' By the time I got outside, Faisal was climbing out of the wadi and approaching my garden wall. Just like a grotesque version of What's the Time Mr Wolf, the boys pursued him, cruelly baiting. They were occasionally rewarded by his turning and growling at them.
"Shoo yamaloo? What are you doing?" I was totally ignored. As I approached, I could see that the tops of Faisal's buttocks were exposed by the slippage of his ill-fitting, second-hand track-suit bottoms. The other boys were having a field day. He sat on the kerb, surrounded by jeering boys, with at least eight women with younger children and girls looking on, smiling. I sat on the curb beside him. My hope was that he would let me hold his hand and escort him home, some 50 metres away. At that moment, one of the boys shouted abuse that caused Faisal to rise and lunge at them. They ran away as he pursued them into the warren of narrow back streets. I followed and found him sitting on the ground against a wall.
A brave, beautiful 20 year-old woman called Noor arrived and stayed with Faisal while I fetched my car. "Hello Faisal," I said, "would you like to get in?" Mercifully, he rose and docilely climbed into the front passenger seat. The poor boy stank so badly that I could scarcely breathe. At his home, he waited for me to open his door for him. He was safe. Faisal's father had died four weeks previously, aged 47 years. The family was poor. There were six other children, two of whom had severe learning difficulties. Everyone in the village knew of their trouble. Every boy in that pack knew who Faisal was and that his family was in mourning.
Given such boyhoods and adolescence how can young men develop any sense of conscience or accountability? How can they be socialized? Could it be through fear – that favoured control mechanism of extremists? The self-esteem is inbred, then nurtured. That can then become the kind of certainty which starts as arrogance and ends as moral anarchy.