Looking more closely at the world

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It's been a while since The Young Atheist's Handbook was published but I've continued writing about Atheism and Humanism in New Humanist magazine and elsewhere and I have become a trustee of the British Humanist Association. However, I've been focussing on my work in science education and am proud to announce that Demo: The Movie, a film about how and why we should use demonstrations in science teaching, is now available to view. It's very much a film for science teachers and it looks at how we can get our students to look more closely at the world around them. There are some notes available to help teachers get the most out of watching it here.



"Love songs have been a majority of all songs ever written" and "Love in music has been expressed in all cultures and among all gender, race, and age groups" are claims made by social scientists who study this sort of thing. I suspect no-one reading this will be surprised by these statements or find them difficult to believe, but I think it's a pity that we have elevated romantic love to such a privileged position in popular culture that we neglect other forms of love, particularly friendship. 

There are lots of genuinely wonderful love songs and I imagine most people have heard at least one which they believe summed up their feelings at the time. Surely every teenager, at least in the west, goes through a rite of passage where they repeatedly listen to a particular love song which they feel perfectly captures exactly how they feel? Sadly, I don't think the same can be said of friendship. 

In my (admittedly limited) research, I've found a number of pop songs about friendship, but have been largely unimpressed with the quality of lyrics (and indeed music) on offer to express what I think is the true wonderfulness of this incredibly enriching and important aspect of our lives. The fact is, you'd be hard-pushed to compile a double-album's worth of decent tracks about friendship.

I've been thinking about this since taking part in a fundraising event for the British Humanist Association's choir where people gave short talks and the choir sung songs on a range of themes including Birth, Love, Hope, and Death. They chose Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water for the theme I was asked to talk about, Friendship: 

When you're weary 

Feeling small 

When tears are in your eyes 

I will dry them all 


I'm on your side

When times get rough 

And friends just can't be found 

Like a bridge over troubled water 

I will lay me down 

Like a bridge over troubled water 

I will lay me down 


It's a beautiful song and deservedly one that is loved by many. However, the song is rather melancholy, being about friendship in times of trouble, and most of its lyrics could pass for those of love song, a lot like that other classic, You've Got a Friend by Carole King: 

When you're down and troubled
and you need a helping hand
and nothing, whoa nothing is going right.
Close your eyes and think of me
and soon I will be there
to brighten up even your darkest nights.

You just call out my name,
and you know wherever I am
I'll come running, oh yeah baby
to see you again. 

Sholay.jpg

As part of my talk at the BHA Choir event, I played the audience a song called Yeh Dosti ("This Friendship"), my favourite of the musical numbers from the greatest of all Bollywood movies, Sholay. This is the most joyous song about friendship I know - it's got a catchy, upbeat tune and wonderful lyrics about living and dying together in an unbreakable friendship that I'd bet half of India could sing to you even today, more than 30 years after the film's release. Sadly, it's brilliance is somewhat lost in translation and I can't help feeling that those of you who can't understand Hindi are missing out on a real gem of a song. Unlike many of its western counterparts, there's no mistaking this for a love song - it's an out and out celebration of what I think is the greatest bromance ever committed to film.  

It's not just songs; most movies, in fact most of the stories we tell in any format (except perhaps computer games), are centred around romantic love, even when purporting to be about other things. It seems to me that popular culture is bereft of decent expressions of the significance and benefits of friendship. Instead, we over-emphasise romantic love in our artistic endeavours, and, in my opinion, our culture is poorer for it. 


Films about everything from cars which transform into robots to superheroes from outer space have romantic subplots shoehorned into them to cater for what I imagine the writers think are audiences' expectations. It's as if the people who make songs, movies, soap operas, adverts ,and so on, believe these things are incomplete, or irrelevant, without romantic love being a key element. This is an insidious idea, because it can make us feel our own lives are incomplete without romantic love, that our stories are somehow inferior or inadequate without a central romance to provide ultimate meaning. 


The idealised depiction of romantic love in most popular culture can give us unrealistic expectations of what it actually entails in the real world - how many of us grow up with the notion of "The One", only to be bitterly disillusioned by the end of our first romantic relationship? How many people go through life feeling that the one thing that would make everything better is a romantic partner, only to find that this is not true? When I made this argument at the BHA event, quite a number of people clapped - the first time a round of applause has made me sad. 


It's easy to wax lyrical about romantic love - we have a wealth of cultural references to it to draw from; it truly is one of the things that can bring the greatest happiness, meaning and purpose to our lives. But romantic love can be hard to come by and we should be grateful for the fact that, for most of us, friendship is on offer far more widely. I hope no-one reading this longs for friendship in the way that so many of us spend so much time and energy longing for romantic love. 


As you've probably gathered from reading this, I haven't had the kind of success in romantic relationships I might have hoped for as a teenager. I'm spelling that out for you so that you don't feel I'm showing off when I write this next sentence: I've had more than my fair share of deep, meaningful, transformative friendships. My best romantic relationships have been with people who have been, and continue to be, my friends. If I believed in God, I would thank her for blessing me with so many friends, for they have saved me in my darkest hours and heightened my joy in my happiest times. My friends are the people who occupy the most special places in my life and in my heart, they are the people with whom my soul resonates at a fundamental level and they are, at their best, indistinguishable from my family. 


I'll end with a thought I've often raised in the past year or so as I've spoken about why I'm a Humanist: the things religious believers look for in God, the things some of them think they find in God - meaning, purpose, comfort, love - are things we can all find, for real, in each other, in our fellow human beings, in our friends. 

GCSE Science Consultation

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The Government is currently carrying out a consultation on the draft criteria for GCSE Science. Physics textbook writer David Sang, who I’ve worked with in making a number of physics demonstration films, has some concerns which he’s allowed me to share here:

I have specifically commented on the Physics sections as I feel unqualified to comment on Biology and Chemistry - although these are clearer and briefer.

I have restricted myself to two or three examples of each type of problem, although I could have come up with many more and I have seen many more examples in comments from other interested physicists.

The introductory paragraphs describe the statements of content as ‘criteria’, and suggest that ‘flexibility’ remains for Awarding Organisations to develop their specifications. However, the statements have the form and terminology of statements from a specification, rather than being criteria against which a specification could be judged. Also, the detail provided is so extensive that scope for flexibility seems limited; I suspect that these ‘criteria’ could be copied and pasted into a specification document and would then be approved for teaching. A revision of GCSE Science should be based on educational grounds.

There may be a desire to increase rigour or to increase flexibility; it may be felt that existing specifications do not meet the needs of all groups of students; there might be a desire to introduce recent developments in Science. However, none of this is evident in the draft criteria. It looks simply as though a different group of people have set about writing down what they think should be in the curriculum without much reference to what has gone before. As a consequence, many arbitrary changes have been made.

There are arbitrary removals eg radioactive half-life from Double Science (p41) and arbitrary additions eg g = Gm/r2 (p41) and AM and FM (p34). This makes work for teachers, who have to rewrite their schemes of work; equipment may become redundant, or new equipment may be needed; and there will be knock-on implications for A-level. Arbitrary detail is included eg drum skins (p32), human audition (p32) and bicycle pumps (p39). Including such detail tends to prescribe how a topic is approached, thereby restricting flexibility. These will have to appear in exam specifications and will be accorded more weight than they deserve.

Many of the statements are badly expressed and are therefore unclear in their requirements. In particular, many statements begin with ‘Explain that …’, but I suspect that this phrase could be replaced by ‘Recall and apply’. It should be possible to convert an ‘Explain’ statement into a ‘Why?’ or ‘How?’ question, but this is usually impossible. There are many statements in which the English construction is poor so that the precise intention is obscure eg Newton’s First Law (p31) and many more.

Arbitrary (or poor) selection of items for separate science Physics eg light and materials (p33), uses of EM radiation (p34). In several places, ideas are developed in Double Award but applications of these ideas only appear in separate science Physics. This will make Double Award more theoretical than separate science Physics.

Incorrect terminology eg ‘distortion’ should be ‘deformation’ (p39), ‘tissue cells’ should be ‘cells’ (p41) and many more.

Incorrect physics eg a false distinction is drawn between linear and rotational forces (p30); ‘orbits of meteors’ (p42); objects immersed in liquids are not necessarily ‘subject to a net upward force’ (p39). This suggests that too few people have been involved in casting a critical eye over the draft before publication.

Poor examples of practical activities eg ‘design a domestic mains circuit based on a single fuse plug to maximise lighting intensity’ (p46) - this could not be done in practice for safety reasons, and simply designing is not a good example of a practical activity; ‘write a report …’ (p46) - this is not an example, merely a reworking of the statement it is supposed to illustrate.

Unnecessary parts of statements eg ‘define the terms specific latent heat and specific heat capacity and distinguish between them’ (p38) - any definitions of these quantities are bound to be distinct.

If you’re a science teacher, please contribute your own thoughts to the consultation here.

Credit where credit's due

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I remember the first time I saw my name in the credits of a TV programme - it was for the BBC’s Blood of the Vikings. It felt awesome. A few years later, I was lucky enough to see the words “A film by Alom Shaha” on the big screen at the Ritzy Picturehouse, where my short film Do Make Friends was being screened. That felt awesome too.

This morning, I saw a tweet from @guardianscience about a film which I am incredibly proud to have written, directed and produced:

I was delighted that they were showcasing films which I had originally devised and produced for broadcast on the now defunct channel Teachers’ TV - it’s great that they’re still being seen and that @guardianscience are helping take them to a new audience. However, I was upset to see that the end credits had been removed from the film and expressed my disappointment via a tweet:

I’m pleased to report that @guardianscience saw my tweets and responded quickly and positively:

Now, this may seem petty to some people, after all, nobody watches the end-of-film credits anyway, right? (Well, apart from people staying behind in the hope of a taster of the next instalment of a blockbuster superhero franchise). Anyone who’s ever worked on a TV programme or film will know how important it is that the credits are there, whether or not anyone else watches them - they serve to acknowledge the time, work and effort put into making the film or TV programme, they act as a way of letting others in the industry know who did what jobs on the production and even as proof that someone has done what they claim to have done. In an industry where it’s hard to get work and you are judged primarily on what work you have done, credits matter. Whether there’s a legal obligation or not, it seems only morally right to give credit where credit’s due.

A little reading around the subject reveals that some of the Biblical stories featuring the Abrahamic God are almost certainly loose adaptations of earlier myths. Noah was not the first character in a story who had to deal with a massive flood, and Jesus was not the first to be born when a woman was impregnated by a god. The figure of the Abrahamic God has evolved from earlier gods, and continues to evolve as new interpretations of the Abrahamic religions or, indeed, entirely new religions, spring up. In one sense, and perhaps because I am a reader of comics, it seems much like the way in which every generation has its own take on classic superheroes through new films and books. New movie versions of Batman, Spiderman, and Superman seem to be perpetually in production, giving new writers and directors the opportunity to tell these stories in their own way. (And in another parallel with religion, these different versions of superhero stories lead to endless discussions about which is the most authentic depiction of a particular character.)

I wrote the above a couple of years ago for the Escape to Narnia chapter of The Young Atheist’s Handbook. The recent re-boot of Superman, Man of Steel, provides an excellent example of this, with many reviewers complaining that the film-makers have misunderstood Superman.

My favourite review of the film has been by FILM CRIT HULK (@FilmCritHULK on Twitter) who has written an epic 17,000 word essay (all in BLOCK CAPITALS) on everything that is wrong with the film. It’s a magnificent piece of writing and well worth reading in full if you love movies as much as I do and want a really coherent account of why Man of Steel is a bad film. Here’s a taste of what FILM CRIT HULK has to say:

WE DON’T NEED SUPERMAN TO PUNCH THINGS, OR TEACH US TO OVERCOME OUR ENEMIES, OR UNLEASH THE CARNAGE OF DESTRUCTION. THOSE THINGS WE KNOW HOW TO DO JUST FINE… WE NEED SUPERMAN TO BE ABLE TO DO THOSE THINGS AND YET NOT DO THEM BECAUSE IT IS RIGHT. WE NEED A SUPERMAN THAT IS MORE DEFINED BY MUNDANE HEROISMS THAT MAKE UP OUR EVERYDAY LIVES. THE COURAGE TO GET UP AND GO TO WORK EVERY DAY. THE COURAGE TO PAY OUR BILLS ON TIME. THE COURAGE TO GIVE PEOPLE A TINY INKLING OF BUREAUCRATIC KINDNESS. THE COURAGE TO BE RESPONSIBLE FOR OTHER HUMAN BEINGS. THE COURAGE TO DO THE HARD THING, WHEN THE EASIER OPTION IS AVAILABLE. THE COURAGE TO BE PEOPLE WHO TELL THE TRUTH WHEN IT IS EASIER TO LIE. THE COURAGE TO BE PEOPLE WHO GIVE WHEN IT IS PREFERABLE TO KEEP FOR OUR OWN. THE COURAGE TO BE OPEN TO GROWTH AND HUMILITY IN THE FACE OF US NOT BEING “BADASS” ENOUGH. THAT’S REAL COURAGE, WHEREAS NOTIONS OF REVENGE AND ANIMOSITY ARE OF LITTLE VALUE IN OUR EVERY DAY LIVES. AND THESE THINGS ARE REAL… THEY ARE MUNDANE… THEY ARE WITHIN OUR GRASP, BUT THEY NEED THAT INSPIRATION MORE THAN ANYTHING TO MAKE THEM REAL. WE NEED A SUPERMAN TO SHOW US WHY THESE THINGS MATTER. WE NEED A SUPERMAN TO SHOW US WHY WE SHOULDN’T PUNCH THINGS.

And:

SUPERMAN HAS EVERY REASON NOT TO CARE ABOUT THE FATE OF HUMANS, YET HE DOES ANYWAY. AND HE DOES BECAUSE HE LEARNED HOW TO BE A REGULAR HUMAN BEING UNDERNEATH ALL THAT SUPERHUMANITY

I love the passion with which this is written. It’s amazing the extent to which FILM CRIT HULK and other Superman fans feel they know exactly who Superman is and ought to be. People genuinely love Superman, or at least, they love the idea of Superman that they hold in their minds, and many have been incredibly disappointed by a depiction of him that seems to get it so wrong. But, at the end of the day, every one of these fans knows that Superman is just a fictional character, right?

Scientists often get annoyed, or even angry, when creationists claim "evolution is just a theory". It's often unclear whether creationists are deliberately using a widespread confusion about the use of the word "theory" in science to their advantage or whether they genuinely believe that the theory of evolution is simply a guess, an idea, that should be viewed as no more important or valid than any other idea about how life on Earth developed. 

As a science teacher, I often emphasise to my students the precise meaning of the word "theory" as it is used in science and contrast it to the everyday meaning of the word which suggests a sort of speculation or guess.

Racism and Sexism are two words which seem to have obvious meanings. In everyday usage they may simply mean "prejudice or discrimination directed against someone of a different race or sex". However, to sociologists and others, "racism" and "sexism" are words used to denote something more than just simple prejudice based on difference - they are words which are used to refer to the systematic disadvantaging and oppression of non-whites and women. 

I'm not a sociologist, but I do not know of any male academic who has had his views taken less seriously because he is a man, I do not know of any man who earns less for doing the same job as a woman in the same company and I do not know of any word like "nigger" or "paki" that can make a white person feel, indeed believe, that they are genuinely inferior human beings.

Whilst I agree that you might technically be able to apply the words racism or sexism when someone says something mean about a white man, just as scientists get angry when creationists misuse the word theory, I tend to get a little annoyed when these words are used in this context. 

I'm not sure I'm right about this, maybe white men are genuinely the victims of racism and sexism and perhaps my views on this are shaped more by how I feel than by any watertight rational argument. I want to emphasise though, that I don't believe one has to have been a victim of racism or sexism in order to appreciate the complexities of these subjects - empathy and reason will suffice. 
I've been delighted to find that The Young Atheist's Handbook is being used in schools by teachers like Laura Cooper who wrote to tell me:

"I recently read your book, The Young Atheists Handbook, and would just like to say as a teacher of Religious Studies how useful I have found it. It is exactly the kind of book I have been looking for to use with my students, in order to help them to develop a more nuanced understand of Atheism.
 
I myself am currently completing a masters degree in Education and decided to focus my final research report on the issue of including atheism in Religious Education. I do appreciate how busy you are but I wondered if perhaps I could ask you to respond to some of the questions I have been asking other teachers during my research to gain your perspective on this topic? I have included the questions below:
(1) How do you think atheism should be handled within Religious Education?
(2) What do you see are the benefits of including atheism in Religious Education?
(3) How would you respond to somebody who said that including atheism in Religious Education is illogical?
(4) At what point during their secondary education should students be introduced to Atheist beliefs in Religious Education?
 
Many thanks again for writing such an insightful book - I am already lending my copy out to a number of my GCSE students and have recommended it to my head of department."

Laura has kindly said I can share her email and my response to it here. So, here are my answers to Laura's questions:

(1) How do you think atheism should be handled within Religious Education? I think atheism should definitely be included as part of the material covered in any religious education course. As for how it should be "handled", well, I hope that it would be handled in the same way that I would like the other topics in RE to be taught - in a way that provides students with information, equips them with the tools to critically examine that information, and allows them to arrive at their own conclusions.

(2) What do you see are the benefits of including atheism in Religious Education? The biggest benefit, in my view, of including atheism in RE, indeed of having RE lessons at all, is that it lets students know that people have different ways of looking at and making sense of the world. If taught properly, I'd hope that RE lessons foster understanding and empathy in students for people who are different to them. There are lots of children who come from non-religious families or who may have arrived at the conclusion that there is no god for themselves so it is just as important that religious students develop an understanding of non-religious beliefs, as well as those of other religions, if we are to genuinely promote mutual understanding amongst young people.

(3) How would you respond to somebody who said that including atheism in Religious Education is illogical? I think I've pretty much answered that question in the responses above. But I should perhaps add that atheism is a valid response to the "big questions" that religions attempt to answer and if Religious Education is supposed to teach students about how those questions have been answered, it would be illogical to not include atheism as part of an RE course.

(4) At what point during their secondary education should students be introduced to Atheist beliefs in Religious Education? Year 7. I can think of no reason why discussion of atheism should be delayed. 

I've answered Laura's questions about atheism but the British Humanist Association do a much better job of explaining why non-religious beliefs should be included in RE courses. I fully agree with their belief that "all pupils in all types of schools should have the opportunity to consider philosophical and fundamental questions, and that in an open society we should learn about each other's beliefs, including non-religious beliefs such as Humanism". The BHA are campaigning to make RE an "inclusive, impartial, objective, fair, balanced and relevant subject allowing pupils to explore a variety of religious and non-religoius worldviews...[including] the historical and social contexts of the emergence and development of religions and beliefs". 

As well as the campaign to ensure Humanism is included in school RE courses, the BHA is raising money to send a copy of The Young Atheist's Handbook to every secondary school in England and Wales. Please donate if you can.  

Buying books you won't read

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積ん読

This is the Japanese word "tsundoku", meaning "the act of leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piled up together with such other unread books" (amazing that such a short word can mean such a thing, but I'll trust that the internet isn't lying to me on this occasion). I have such a pile in my living room, containing well over 50 books. The pile emits a special radiation that induces guilt when I am in its vicinity...

But buying books you won't read can be a good thing, for example, if you're buying them for someone else. At the time of writing this, 484 people, some of whom I know, most of whom are strangers, have, between them, bought approximately 1000 copies of The Young Atheist's Handbook to give away to strangers. More precisely, they've donated a total of £9917.40 towards the British Humanist Association's campaign to put a copy of my book into every school library in Engalnd and Wales. The idea for the campaign came from science teacher Ian Horsewell who says of the campaign: "This isn't about politics, making a profit, or making children read a book..I'm a teacher who really believes that one of the most important jobs in the world is to help a young person start to think for themselves."

I've been overwhelmed by the generosity of the people who've contributed to the campaign so far, and moved by many of the lovely comments they've left explaining why they've donated anything from £5 to £500. My biggest ambition for the book when I wrote it was that it would get into the hands of young people, but young people don't really buy books and this campaign, if successful, will make The Young Atheist's Handbook available to children who might otherwise never have access to it. So, if you're the type who buys books you won't read, please consider donating


Letter from a Turkish Reader

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I received the following email from a Turkish reader of The Young Atheist's Handbook. She has kindly let me share it here:

Dear Mr. Shaha

I read your book in Turkish some time ago. When I read your statement that you don't know if your book can translate into your mother tongue or not, I feel sorry for you and feel myself lucky at the same time. I'm a Turkish Republic citizen and this kind of books can translate into my language. Unfortunately Islamist movements are getting stronger in Turkey day by day. We can't even announce that we are atheists. Otherwise no one give a chance to us in social life or for employment. Sometimes we are lucky just to keep alive.

Recently we experience a new kind of Islamist pressure. Islamist groups started a campaign against atheism pages on Facebook. They invite Muslims to some kind of jihad (a version for social network) and want them to inform atheist groups to Facebook administration with outrages insults. They are so crowded so Facebook shut atheism pages based on that false reports.

Lots of atheism pages shut down or force to hide. After that, some Turkish atheism groups started opposite campaign. All atheists inform that page for hate crime. It was a meaningless online war but it was Islamists fault and atheists had to defend themselves. I read some of messages on that their page. A man said, "I feel like to take my gun and go to war." Religious people acted like they are in a real war against atheists. Most popular message was, "...until no ateist exists."

You said, "My Turkish brothers/sisters stories must be like my story" in your book. You were right. So I just want you to learn these incidents.

Best regards
An atheist from Turkey

Introduction to Turkish Edition

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Turkish YAH Cover .jpg

The Turkish edition of The Young Atheist's Handbook was published a few weeks ago. Over there, the publishers have gone with a different title, Tanrının Öldüğü Gün ("The Day God Died"), taken from chapter one of the English edition. Here's the introduction I wrote for it: 


There is a Turkish grocery store in my neighbourhood which is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It is a remarkable sight on Christmas day, when most of London is eerily still and quiet because almost all other shops and businesses are closed. The shop is popular with locals - the staff are friendly and helpful and there is a wonderful selection of products including, of course, Turkish Delight. I often stop there on my way home from work to buy fresh ingredients -  coriander, chilies, ginger and garlic, and usually some lamb chops or liver - with which to cook my evening meal. I suspect the shop's butcher thinks I buy my meat there (instead of from the supermarket where it is cheaper) because it is halal, after all, I look like many of the other Bangladeshi Muslims who live locally. He always greets me with a cheerful "asalamu-alaikum brother" and I always reply "walaikum salaam". I have never had the opportunity to, nor seen the need to tell him that I am not a Muslim, that I am an Atheist. I wonder what he would think? Would I fall in his estimation? In an ideal world, he would simply shrug and still call me "brother" and continue to wish peace upon me. 


As a child, when I still thought of myself as a "Muslim", I was excited to find out that the Turkish children at school were also Muslim, as I had previously only known Bangladeshi Muslims. It seems to be a human instinct that we prefer people who are similar to us, so I am sure that many Bangladeshis and Turks in the UK will have first become friends through their common religion.


Just as I grew uncomfortable with following Islam as I grew older, I know there must be young Turkish people in both the UK and in Turkey who realise that the religious stories handed down to them by their parents are not ones which they can believe. I know there must be Turkish people who go through the same difficulties that I have seen so many Bangladeshi "Ex-Muslims" go through in the UK and it is my hope that my book might, in some small way, help them make their own journey towards happy, fulfilling lives as non-believers. 


It seems to me that Bangladesh and Turkey both have a complicated relationship with religion and democracy, and that secularism is under attack in these countries which have previously taken pride in their separation of state and religion. I have been saddened by the many reports of state persecution of anyone, particularly artists and writers, who openly criticise Islam in Turkey. As I write this, the Turkish composer and pianist Fazil Say faces trial later this year, on charges of "insulting Islamic values". He has said that the trial is "saddening not only when judged on its own merit but also for Turkey's image."


It is therefore heartening that a Turkish publisher has chosen to publish my book, which is very much one that promotes atheism and encourages the questioning of Islam, and indeed any religion, as a way of life. I don't know if there will ever be a Bangladeshi translation of my book but I am incredibly grateful to my Turkish publishers for giving me the opportunity to take my story to people in Turkey. I wish I could read Turkish because I am sure that Nuray Onoglu has done a wonderful job with the translation - I know of the care and attention she took to ensure that she was accurately conveying what I wrote in English. 


My story is one of a Bangladeshi child who grew up in the UK, but I hope it is one that will resonate with my Turkish brothers and sisters everywhere. With peace and love,




Alom Shaha

London, July 2012