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From slippers to spikes: How India bowler Siraj worked his way to the top


When MS Dhoni swung his bat to a score a six and deliver India’s second ICC Cricket World Cup title at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium in 2011, more than 700km (434 miles) away in Hyderabad, a 16-year-old Mohammed Siraj was cultivating his dream of playing for India.

On Wednesday, the 29-year-old will steam in with the ball in his hand as the world’s top one-day international (ODI) bowler when India take on New Zealand in the 2023 tournament’s first semifinal at the same storied venue.

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The tall and athletic pacer from Hyderabad in southern India has come a long way from bowling in slippers on dusty grounds to becoming a household name in the cricket-obsessed country.

In September, he took five Sri Lankan wickets in 16 balls – the joint fastest five-wicket haul in ODI history – and ended with figures of 6-21 as India romped to a 10-wicket win in the Asia Cup final.

Siraj’s performance left his captain, Rohit Sharma, befuddled as he spoke about the fast bowler after the match.

“It was Siraj’s day to be a hero, and he stood up for the team,” Rohit said, heaping praise on the right-arm quick, who bowled a seven-over opening spell, which also saw him run all the way down the long-on boundary to field off his own bowling.

“He wanted to keep going. I wanted him to keep going, but our trainer asked him to stop to maintain his fitness [for the World Cup].”

Come the World Cup and its biggest group-stage match between India and Pakistan, Siraj stood up for his team once more. He dismissed Pakistan’s in-form batter Abdullah Shafique to break the opening stand and followed up with the prize wicket of their star captain, Babar Azam.

‘You need money to buy shoes’

Lovingly nicknamed “Miya Bhai” (sir, brother) by his Indian teammates, Siraj first picked up the game as a teenager. He would skip lessons in school and then in college to go play cricket on the dusty expanse of the Eidgah (Eid prayer venue) ground in Hyderabad.

“It would be jam-packed with at least 15 matches taking place at the same time,” Siraj said during a podcast with his Indian Premier League (IPL) team Royal Challengers Bangalore.

His father, Mohammed Ghous, drove an auto rickshaw all day, and his mother, Shabana Begum, worked as a cleaner and cook in the neighbourhood.

Siraj’s love for the game often landed him in trouble with his mother, but Ghous always backed his son’s ambition. The teenager’s first taste of competitive cricket came with his uncle’s club team.

“I took nine wickets in my first ever club match and played in the local league for four years,” Siraj told Indian sports journalist Gaurav Kapoor in an interview.

The teenaged Siraj would play in slippers because his daily pocket money of 70 rupees (less than $1) was not enough to buy sports shoes.

“I bowled in slippers until I was 19. You need money to buy shoes, and I didn’t have any. Had I asked my parents to buy me shoes, they would have probably thrashed me with a pair,” he joked.

‘I only knew how to bowl fast’

The cricket-mad teenager had been bowling with a tennis ball until he was selected by a local club that offered to pay for his services in addition to offering a cricket kit and a pair of spikes.

Siraj’s eyes lit up when he saw the shoes but “didn’t know why they had nails sticking out at the bottom”.

“They handed me the new ball right away – it was my first time holding a proper cricket ball – and I didn’t know what to do with the seam. I only knew how to run in and bowl fast, so I did.”

Siraj took five wickets in his first match as he left the opposition beaten by his pace.

Of his 70-rupee pocket money, 40 now went towards fuelling up his trusty old motorcycle that needed a long run-up to get going, much like the fast bowler himself.

“Once I was playing regular cricket, I used to go to the local ground on my bike while the other players arrived in big cars, and I would feel so ashamed of having to push-start my bike that I waited for every one to leave before making my way home,” he said.

Once Siraj had figured out what to do with the ball’s seam, how to bowl in and out swing, he was knocking on the doors of regional teams.

“When I was named amongst the under-23 probables, I got struck by dengue fever and could feel the opportunity slip away,” he recalled.

Determined not to let his chance go, Siraj turned up for practice on his dad’s auto rickshaw and participated in the full session out of sheer passion for the game.

Special connection with Virat Kohli

Siraj’s under-23 exploits brought him a chance to bowl in the nets to the country’s stars during IPL practice sessions.

“I pelted KL Rahul with so many bouncers that he got mad at me and asked me if I knew how to bowl anything else,” Siraj said.

But it wasn’t only Rahul who saw him that day. Siraj had caught the eye of bowling coach Bharat Arun, who later worked with India’s national team, and he picked the lanky pacer in Hyderabad’s squad for Ranji Trophy – India’s premier domestic tournament – in 2015.

Siraj knew his career was on an upwards trajectory, but something kept bothering him.

“I wanted to make enough money to put my parents at ease,” he said.

That money came two years later when he was picked in the 2016 IPL auction for 26 million rupees ($312,200) by the Hyderabad franchise.

“When I left home to join the [IPL] team, I told my brother to find a house for our family by the time I was back.”

Siraj moved to star batter and then-India captain Virat Kohli’s RCB team a year later.

He loves to tell the story of hosting his star-studded, Kohli-led IPL team at his new home in Hyderabad.

“Virat Bhai told me he couldn’t make it to the dinner because of a stiff back, and we are all heartbroken, but in fact he wanted to surprise me and my family. It’s the best surprise any one has ever given me.”

‘From there to here’

During his tenure as India’s all-format captain, Kohli showed a special liking to out-and-out fast bowlers because they matched his aggressive approach towards the game.

In Siraj, Kohli had found one such cog in the wheel.

The bowler, who is a self-confessed Kohli fan, added a new threat to India’s bowling attack and took a five-wicket haul on an emotional first Test series in Australia.

Ghous passed away while the Indian team was under quarantine prior to the series, and Siraj’s family urged him to stay in Australia to fulfill his biggest supporter’s lifelong dream.

When Siraj lined up with his teammates for India’s national anthem before his first Test match, tears rolled down his face.

“I had finally fulfilled dad’s dream, but he wasn’t around to see it,” he would say after the match.

“It also made me realise how far I had come. ‘Kahan thay, kahan agaye’ [From there to here].”

Siraj, now a regular name on the Indian teamsheet, has bagged 12 wickets in the World Cup so far and will be raring to go against a strong New Zealand batting lineup.

When he lines up to represent India in his 40th and most important ODI match at the Indian home of cricket on Wednesday, Siraj will be hundreds of kilometres and 14 strife-filled years away from the dusty, small-town and village grounds of his childhood.

Source: Al Jazeera

India’s ‘visionary’: Virat Kohli’s huge influence, in cricket and beyond


Mumbai, India –  As the Indian cricket team move from city to city like a travelling carnival, steamrollering all opposition in a home World Cup, they are cheered on by packed stadiums of fans in replica blue jerseys, many bearing “Virat 18” on their backs.

Meanwhile, Virat Kohli, India’s star batter, is having the time of his life.

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Kohli has regaled fans with his batting. And when the DJ spins the right tune, he’s also not shy to show off his song-appropriate dance moves, some of them picturised on his wife Anushka Sharma, a famous Bollywood actor and producer.

At times the crowds have chanted for Kohli to be given a chance to bowl, and against Netherlands on Sunday night, he did.

The “wrong-footed, in-swinging menace” – as described by his coach Rahul Dravid – obliged by taking a wicket from a dreadful delivery and enjoying every last bit of it with his teammates, fans and wife Anushka who cheered him on from the stands.

Kohli’s World (Cup)

Amid all this, Kohli ended the league phase as the leading run scorer in the tournament, with 594 runs, getting 50 or more in all but two of nine matches.

On occasion, he has strategised with his batting partners to complete his century before the win was sealed. In the shadow of the Western Ghats in Pune, they successfully engineered a hundred for him against Bangladesh. Under the snow-capped peaks in Dharamshala against New Zealand, they fell short by five runs.

In steamy Kolkata on November 5, the entire stadium sang him happy birthday. Kohli, who turned 35 that day, scored a hundred in India’s victory over South Africa, and in the process, he equalled his hero Sachin Tendulkar’s record of 49 one-day international centuries.

When India last won the World Cup, in 2011, Kohli was 23.

During the celebratory lap around the field in Mumbai that night, he famously hoisted Tendulkar on his shoulders and supplied a memorable quote to the cameras: “He’s carried the burden of the nation for 21 years, so it’s time we carry him on our shoulders.”

If India go on to win this World Cup, it is not out of the question for Kohli to be the one hoisted in Ahmedabad.

In the 12 years between then and now, he has acquired a status that few in the sport ever have. To the outside world Kohli is an icon for Indian cricket.

Within India he has come to represent something greater: excellence itself.

‘Hot-bloodedness and internal discipline’

There are, first of all, the runs: a staggering 26,000-plus and counting in international cricket, already the fourth highest of all time.

There is the legacy of his captaincy (which ended, under controversial circumstances, in 2022). Although India did not land a global trophy in that time, his 63 percent win record across formats compares with the best in history. During his captaincy, the Test team held the number one ranking for three-and-a-half years straight.

But to understand the phenomenon of Kohli in contemporary India, we have to consider, too, the impact of “Brand Kohli”.

For four of the past five years he has been placed first in Kroll’s Celebrity Brand Valuation reports for Indian celebrities, ahead of a bevvy of film actors (his latest valuation is $177m).

No fewer than 372 million people subscribe to his social media feeds. If put together, an agglomeration of Kohli followers would make the third biggest country in the world.

While welcoming cricket into the Olympics, the LA Games Sports Director Niccolo Campriani pointed out that Kohli’s following is “more than LeBron James, Tom Brady and Tiger Woods combined”.

Santosh Desai, a leading Indian advertising professional and columnist, teased out the elements of “Brand Kohli” for Al Jazeera: “There is grit, a kind of fierce determination”; “a combination of hot-bloodedness and internal discipline”; “a certain hardness and masculinity”; “aggression is an important part, directed both at himself and outside”.

If these adjectives feel at odds with his carefree demeanour on display at the World Cup, there is reason.

Age, fatherhood, freedom from captaincy, have all had a (slightly) mellowing effect on the most relentlessly intense figure Indian cricket has known, whose in-your-face competitiveness – celebrations like road rage – could rub not just the opposition the wrong way but some of his own countrymen too.

Desai says there has been brand evolution since his marriage to Anushka: “a definite attempt to dull some of the harder edges of his persona”.

Indeed Kohli has often credited Anushka with having a calming influence on his life.

“The patience bit I have learnt ever since me and Anushka met each other – I was very impatient before,” Kohli famously said during an online session with students during the coronavirus pandemic.

‘He’s a winner’

Indian viewers often receive Kohli in carefully curated ways, especially on Star Sports, the broadcasters of the 2023 World Cup.

Kohli-specific programming has been a staple during their tournament coverage.

The WeForVirat series documents aspects of his life and career.

Believe: The Diwali Miracle, a two-part series, is dedicated to a single T20 innings against Pakistan.

In Wrogn Lessons (Wrogn is a clothing brand Kohli co-owns), Kohli reveals his intimate side as he talks about his mum and daughter.

Whereas on the chat show Virat Unplugged, he winsomely banters with a social media influencer.

It’s not all adulation. Unexpected blowback came this weekend, when a leading trend on X in India attacked Star Sports for being a “PR agency” for Kohli, and more specifically, for not giving play to the captain and fellow batting stalwart, Rohit Sharma.

It was a storm in a teacup. Worldly success – fame that is easily worn; wealth that is directed into such business investments as a plant-based meats company, a gymnasium chain, the football club Goa FC – only burnishes Kohli’s credentials as a sporting superachiever.

Former England captain Nasser Hussain once asked Duncan Fletcher, who had coached both England and India, for his take on Kohli.

“He’s a winner,” was Fletcher’s pithy response. It is what a young, aspirational nation looks up to.

‘Changed the way the sport is played’

The most visible proof of Kohli’s ambition has been his pursuit of supreme fitness.

“Visionary,” is the word of choice for Basu Shanker, head strength-and-conditioning coach of Kohli’s IPL team, and of the Indian team during Kohli’s captaincy.

“He was and is ahead of his time,” Basu told Al Jazeera. “He started preparing himself like an Olympic athlete – with such diligence that it was a game-changer.”

Basu is being modest. It was he who introduced Kohli, in 2015, to programmes whose effect Kohli once likened to someone putting “high-octane fuel in my body”. In their minds, Kohli and Basu were not competing with cricketers: they were aiming for Novak Djokovic. It is hardly surprising that Kohli, a football fan, idolises not Lionel Messi but Cristiano Ronaldo.

The turning point for Kohli had come even earlier though, in 2012.

“I was finishing candy packets, 40 pieces, three packets a week. I was eating and sleeping horribly, my habits were all over the place,” he recalled once in an interview to Sky Sports. “I finished the IPL, I remember I went home, came out of the shower, saw myself in the mirror and I was ashamed.”

Kohli’s self-control since is the stuff of legend. A former support staff member of the Indian team recalls the time at breakfast when a dosa was served to him. Kohli leaned over, sniffed it, remarked that it smelled great, and returned to his optimally calibrated plate.

“It mustn’t be easy for you,” said the colleague.

“Who said playing for India is easy?” Kohli replied.

Ordinarily, cricketers have a cheat meal a week. Kohli has one a year, sometimes two years.

Watching him in sporting middle-age sprint his runs towards a fag end of an innings, in a World Cup where batters keep going down with cramps, is to think of other Kohli stories.

Getting a travelling yoga instructor to stretch him on match days at an hour when his teammates are still asleep; showing up at the gym late in the evening, to the astonishment of opposition coaches, after he’s scored a big century in sapping conditions and played football with the team afterwards.

The effects of Kohli’s obsession have been transformational not only for himself, they have influenced athletic culture in India.

“Now every kid in this country knows that fitness is the vehicle on which you travel for excellence,” Basu said. “He changed the way the sport is played.”

To Desai, Kohli’s metamorphosis goes beyond sport.

“It is a very powerful symbol of what is possible.”


Source: Al Jazeera

Israel’s attacks on hospitals ‘should be investigated as war crimes’: HRW


Israel’s repeated attacks on medical facilities, health personnel and ambulances in Gaza should be “investigated as war crimes”, international NGO Human Rights Watch has said.

The Israeli military’s “apparently unlawful attacks” are further destroying Gaza’s healthcare system at a time when medics have unprecedented numbers of severely injured patients, and hospitals have run out of medicine and basic equipment, the group said on Tuesday.

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“Despite the Israeli military’s claims on November 5, 2023, of ‘Hamas’s cynical use of hospitals’, no evidence put forward would justify depriving hospitals and ambulances of their protected status under international humanitarian law,” HRW added.

A war crime is a serious violation of international humanitarian law, committed with criminal intent. HRW urged the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory and the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate Israel’s actions.

Healthcare system ‘devastated’

As of November 10, two-thirds of primary healthcare facilities and half of all hospitals in Gaza are not functioning, according to the United Nations. And as of November 12, at least 521 people, including 16 medical workers, have been killed in 137 “attacks on health care” in Gaza, the World Health Organization said.

“Israel’s repeated attacks damaging hospitals and harming healthcare workers, already hard hit by an unlawful blockade, have devastated Gaza’s healthcare infrastructure,” said A Kayum Ahmed, special adviser on the right to health at HRW. “The strikes on hospitals have killed hundreds of people and put many patients at grave risk because they’re unable to receive proper medical care.”

Between October 7 and November 7, HRW said it investigated attacks on or near five healthcare facilities in Gaza.

It found that Israeli forces struck the Indonesian Hospital multiple times between October 7 and 28, killing at least two civilians; the International Eye Hospital was struck repeatedly and completely destroyed on October 10 or 11;  the Turkish-Palestinian Friendship Hospital was forced to close on November 1, days after air raids on or near the facility; a man and a child were injured after repeated attacks on the al-Quds Hospital; and Israeli forces struck well-marked ambulances on several occasions – at least a dozen people were killed or wounded in one incident outside al-Shifa Hospital on November 3.

“These ongoing attacks are not isolated. Israeli forces have also carried out scores of strikes damaging several other hospitals across Gaza,” HRW said.

‘Special protections’

“Intentionally directing attacks against … medical units and transport” is prohibited as a war crime under the ICC’s Rome Statute, HRW noted.

“Hospitals and other medical facilities are civilian objects that have special protections under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war. Hospitals only lose their protection from attack if they are being used to commit ‘acts harmful to the enemy’, and after a required warning,” it said.

Israel claims that Hamas fighters have set up command centres beneath hospitals like al-Shifa and the Indonesian Hospital – claims Hamas and the hospital staff deny.

“These claims are contested,” HRW said. “Human Rights Watch has not been able to corroborate them, nor seen any information that would justify attacks on Gaza hospitals.”

HRW also criticised the “sweeping nature” of Israel’s evacuation orders, which did not take into account specific requirements for hospitals and patients. The group said there was no way to ensure safe compliance as “there is no reliably secure way to flee or safe place to go in Gaza”, which raised concerns that “the purpose was not to protect civilians, but to terrify them into leaving”.

“The Israeli government should immediately end unlawful attacks on hospitals, ambulances, and other civilian objects, as well as its total blockade of the Gaza Strip, which amounts to the war crime of collective punishment,” HRW said.

It added that Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups should also take feasible precautions to protect civilians under their control.

Source: Al Jazeera

Out of medicines, care: Gaza’s cancer patients face death amid Israel war


Gaza Strip – Sitting in her wheelchair, Saida Barbakh looks around at the crowded classroom in a United Nations-run school in Khan Younis that is her current home. She sighs deeply.

The 62-year-old bone cancer patient’s medication had run out several days earlier. She had been treated at Al Makassed Hospital in occupied East Jerusalem, and following a successful yet complicated surgery, she returned to the Gaza Strip on October 5, two days before the war began.

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“I was supposed to go back after two weeks for a medical check-up,” she says. “I did not expect things to reach this level of danger.”

The UN-run schools, where 725,000 displaced Palestinians have taken shelter from unrelenting Israeli bombardment for more than a month, are far from ideal to house sick patients. A lack of electricity, clean running water, food and bedding, and inadequate washroom facilities, are turning the schools into Petri dishes for an outbreak of diseases, mainly respiratory infections, diarrhoea and skin rashes.

“I feel that I need care and sleep and I cannot move a lot in this wheelchair,” Barbakh said. “Living in this ugly and painful war with cancer is really awful.”

Barbakh, who is from the town of Bani Suhaila east of Khan Younis, was initially recovering at the Turkish-Palestinian Friendship Hospital, the only one for cancer treatment in the Gaza Strip.

But the hospital was forced to shut down its services on November 1, after running out of fuel due to Israel’s continuing blockade of the Gaza Strip. The building had also sustained heavy damage from repeated Israeli attacks on the surrounding areas, the Ministry of Health said. More than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s bombing of Gaza since October 7.

Barbakh was among 70 cancer patients evacuated from the hospital to go south, but after her house was damaged as a result of Israeli bombing – turning much of the area into a ghost town – she and her family had no choice but to stay at a shelter school.

Only clinical care available

The Palestinian Authority health minister, Mai al-Kaila, warns that the lives of these 70 cancer patients are under serious threat because of the lack of treatment and health follow-ups.

Overall, the 2,000 cancer patients in the Gaza Strip are living in “catastrophic health conditions as a result of the ongoing Israeli aggression on the Strip and the mass displacement”, al-Kaila said.

Subhi Sukeyk, the director of the Turkish-Palestinian Friendship Hospital, said more than a month after the start of the war, medicines have run out.

“Specialised treatments for cancer patients, such as chemotherapy and treatment that combines several medications, cannot be provided,” Sukeyk told Al Jazeera. “Some patients were transferred to Dar Essalam Hospital in Khan Younis, which they say is safe, but there is no safe place in Gaza at all.”

Dar Essalam Hospital cannot offer medicines or cancer treatment, but it does provide patients with basic clinical care, he said.

But some of the cancer patients have asked to join their families in the shelter schools to die among them because they know that the hospitals cannot provide them with treatment, he added.

“Every day, we lose two or three cancer patients,” Sukeyk said. “On the night the patients were transferred from the Turkish Friendship Hospital,” he says, “four of them died. The previous night six patients died.”

At the Turkish Friendship Hospital, only a few patients remain. Among them is Salem Khreis, a 40-year-old leukaemia patient.

“There’s no medicine or treatment,” he said. “I can’t explain how terrible the pain is.”

Khreis said he appreciates that the doctors are always by the side of their patients, but beyond their reassurances, there is nothing else they can do.

“They stand with us and tell us they are with us, but their eyes are full of sadness and helplessness from how much we are suffering,” he said.

“Can we die from the siege? Is it not enough for Israel that we suffer from cancer? Save us from this injustice.”

Last week, Turkey’s health minister said his country and Egypt had agreed to send 1,000 cancer patients and other injured civilians needing urgent care in Gaza to Turkey for treatment. No other details were offered.

No medical referrals or permits approved

The Gaza Strip’s healthcare facilities have been stretched under a 16-year Israeli blockade. Before October 7, Sukeyk said, he handed the Health Ministry about 1,000 medical referrals for cancer patients every year for their proper treatment and care in more specialised hospitals outside the besieged territory.

Patients and their relatives must submit a medical permit request, which can only be approved by the Israeli Coordination and Liaison Administration. Overall, about 20,000 patients per year sought permits from Israel to leave the Gaza Strip for healthcare before the war, almost a third of them children.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Israel approved about 63 percent of these medical exit applications in 2022.

That all has come to a grinding halt. Hospitals overcrowded because of a high number of Palestinians wounded in Israeli attacks have started discharging cancer patients to make room for those injured.

Sukeyk said some of the cancer patients who were waiting for their medical permits have died, but is unable to confirm the exact number because of the chaos of the war.

“If a patient hasn’t been receiving treatment, then the spread of cancer in their body is inevitable and they will die,” he said.

Reem Asraf, who has thyroid cancer, has also run out of her medication. She was supposed to get treated at Al Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem, but the Beit Hanoon crossing, known as Erez to Israelis, in the north has not been in function since October 7.

Asraf underwent two surgeries including one to remove the tumour from her neck, but needs further treatment and check-ups.

“I cannot move or even stand due to the deterioration of my health and the lack of painkillers necessary for my condition,” she said, speaking from Khan Younis after she was displaced from her home in Gaza City.

“In the face of the scenes of death and destruction, words cannot describe what we cancer patients are suffering through.”

Source: Al Jazeera

Russia-Ukraine war: List of key events, day 629


Here is the situation on Tuesday, November 14, 2023.


A Russian rocket and artillery attack on the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson killed two people and injured at least 11, damaging a hospital and more than a dozen homes. Local governor Oleksandr Prokudin said a family driving home from a medical appointment was also hit by artillery fire, leaving one man dead and a two-month-old baby injured.Russian military bloggers reported that Ukrainian troops had secured a foothold on the occupied eastern bank of the Dnipro river in the village of Krynky, about 35km (22 miles) upstream from Kherson. The Kremlin declined to comment on the situation. “We do not comment on the course of the special military operation itself, that is the prerogative of our specialists, our military,” said spokesman Dmitry Peskov. The advance would be a significant breakthrough for Kyiv.Russia’s defence ministry said reports from two state news agencies – RIA Novosti and TASS – on troop movements in Ukraine were “false” and a “provocation”. The agencies reported that Russian troops were being moved to “more favourable positions” east of the Dnipro River, but quickly removed the alerts after publishing them.

Politics and diplomacy

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Andriy Yermak, a top aide to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in Washington, DC and promised sustained US support for Ukraine. Blinken spoke to Yermak about “steps we can take together with Ukraine to harden its infrastructure for the upcoming winter,” said State Department spokesman Matthew Miller. “We, of course, in the last winter saw Russia trying to take down energy sites in Ukraine. They may very well do that again”.European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said officials were finalising the “last details” of a proposed 12th package of sanctions on Russia that will include a diamond ban. The European Commission, the EU executive, could approve the proposed package on Wednesday and it would then go to the Council of the EU, made up of the bloc’s 27 member countries, for discussion and approval.Ukrainian lawmaker Oleksandr Dubinsky has been formally notified that he is suspected of treason for allegedly spreading misinformation about the political leadership and cooperation with Russia’s military intelligence. Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, said that a politician was under suspicion but did not name the suspect. He was later named by lawmaker Yaroslav Yurchyshyn, who is the first deputy head of the parliamentary committee on anti-corruption policy, and another lawmaker, Oleksiy Honcharenko. Dubinsky was expelled from the ruling party in 2021 after he was put on a US sanctions list over alleged election meddling. He has denied the accusations.Lawyers for Russian artist Alexandra Skochilenko, who faces as many as eight years in prison for replacing supermarket price tags with demands for an end to the war in Ukraine, told a court the 33-year-old would not survive a jail term and should be freed. Skochilenko, who is known as Sasha, has already spent more than 18 months in jail in St Petersburg and denies the formal charge of knowingly spreading false information about the Russian army.


Hungary’s Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said the country will block the disbursement of the next tranche of military aid to Ukraine under the European Peace Facility (EPF) until Kyiv provides “guarantees” that OTP bank or other Hungarian firms will not be blacklisted as “international sponsors of war”.A report from the Washington, DC-based Institute for Science and International Security said Russia was making progress on the construction of a factory to mass produce Iranian-designed Shahed-136 kamikaze drones.


Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

Indonesian President Joko Widodo urges Biden to help end Gaza ‘atrocities’


Indonesian President Joko Widodo has pressed his United States counterpart Joe Biden to do more to end “atrocities” in Gaza and help bring about a ceasefire.

The two leaders’ talks on Monday were overshadowed by the month-long Israel-Hamas war in which the US has given Israel its full support.

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Widodo, who is popularly known as Jokowi, attended a joint summit of Arab and Muslim leaders in Riyadh at the weekend which condemned Israel and called for a ceasefire.

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country and has seen large protests in support of the Palestinians as well as a boycott of businesses seen as linked to Israel.

“Indonesia appeals to the US to do more to stop the atrocities in Gaza,” Widodo said in the Oval Office as the two presidents met in the White House in front of a roaring fire.

“A ceasefire is a must for the sake of humanity.”

Violence erupted on October 7 after the armed group Hamas, which controls Gaza, launched a surprise assault on Israel killing about 1,200 people and taking more than 200 captive. In response Israel imposed a total blockade on Gaza and has been bombarding the Gaza Strip ever since, killing at least 11,000 Palestinians.

US officials have said Biden is keen for Indonesia to “play a larger role” in the Middle East, which could include the “ceasefire issue” but also long-term goals such as a two-state solution after the war and rebuilding Gaza.

While Washington has thrown its full support behind Israel, it has more recently begun calling for more restraint and “pauses” in the fighting that would allow the delivery of humanitarian aid or the release of the captives held by Hamas.

‘New era of relations’

The Jokowi-Biden meeting comes ahead of talks between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, as well as a key summit of leaders from APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation), which is taking place in San Francisco. China and Indonesia are both members of APEC.

The US aims to upgrade cooperation with Indonesia to a so-called comprehensive strategic partnership, the highest diplomatic level, as it deepens alliances in the Asia Pacific region. Biden unveiled a similar upgrade to ties with Vietnam on a visit to Hanoi in September.

“This will mark a new era of relations between the United States and Indonesia across the board, affecting everything,” Biden said as he sat next to Jokowi.

The deepening crisis in Myanmar was also up for discussion. The country was plunged into turmoil in February 2021, when the military seized power from the government of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Fighting between the military and armed groups fighting against the coup has intensified in the past couple of weeks.

The US and other mainly Western countries have imposed sanctions but the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), while banning Myanmar’s top generals from its summits, has had little success in holding the military to account. Indonesia is the outgoing chair of the 10-member grouping that welcomed Myanmar as a member some 25 years ago with Laos next to take the helm.

“It’s going to be time soon for us to think about what our next steps are together to deal with a situation that is untenable,” the officials told Reuters.

Biden and Jokowi’s talks also covered new cooperation in areas of defence such as cybersecurity, and space as well as climate with the US due to announce steps with the Southeast Asian country on carbon capture and storage, supporting the electricity grid and improving air quality.

Amid rising geopolitical tension, Jokowi was keen to stress Indonesia’s long-held neutrality.

“Indonesia is always open to cooperate with any country, and not to take the side of any power, except to take the side of peace and humanity,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

‘A metaphor for life’: Bollywood’s stormy love affair with Indian cricket


New Delhi, India – For years, Pravin Tambe, a leg-spinner from a middle-class family in Mumbai, toiled away in company and club teams with the singular goal of playing first-class cricket.

He kept going, even as he aged and other players began to refer to him as “uncle”.

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Then in 2013, at the age of 41, he was discovered and signed by former Indian captain Rahul Dravid to play for a professional franchise cricket team.

In the 2014 edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL), while playing for Rajasthan Royals, Tambe took a hat-trick against Kolkata Knight Riders and was named man of the match. He went to the dressing room and wept.

His story was dramatised in the 2022 Bollywood biopic Kaun Pravin Tambe? (Who is Pravin Tambe?), whose character was played by actor Shreyas Talpade.

When Talpade auditioned for the role, his career was not going well.

“I was told that some people weren’t sure whether I’d be able to pull it off,” Talpade, now 47, told Al Jazeera.

He practised hard to convincingly play the leg-spinner from the ages of 20 to 41. His body ached, and one evening when he was feeling particularly low, Talpade and his wife watched Iqbal, his 2005 Bollywood film.

In Iqbal, Talpade played the fictional lead character, a deaf and mute village boy obsessed with playing cricket for India. Despite Iqbal’s disability, his father’s disapproval and no formal training, he persisted and, as happens in all good sports films, human spirit and grit triumph in the climactic sequence.

“[I watched it] just as a reminder – not only about the story of this guy, but also to myself – that I’ve done this before and I can do it again,” he said.

Talpade triumphed too. He got to play Tamble, and cricket transcended from being just a sport to become – as many Indians say – a “metaphor for life”.

People still come up to Talpade to tell him that when they are “feeling down,” they often watch Iqbal.

“The underdog factor is probably the crux. It’s very high on energy and motivation,” says Talpade.

The story of Indian cricket is the story of India, of Talpades and Iqbals, of men and women struggling with poverty, caste, class and gender discrimination, yet rising from gully cricket to play for the country – which is hosting the 2023 Cricket World Cup.

Bollywood, India’s “dream machine”, has always reflected the mood of the nation by drawing inspiration from real life – including from cricket, although it has had a rocky relationship with the sport.

“Cricket and cinema really are two religions in this country,” says Kabir Khan, one of Bollywood’s top directors whose last film, titled 83, was about India winning the World Cup for the first time in 1983.

“Having said that, we probably should have had more cricket films.”

The long cricket-Bollywood ‘jinx’

Bollywood’s love affair with cricket began on a sticky wicket in the late 1950s, when a black and white film, Love Marriage, was released.

That was a time when cricket was played professionally only in its longest form – Tests – over five days. Though the game and cricketers were very popular, the slow pace of Test cricket did not particularly lend itself to on-screen drama.

Love Marriage was about love, but it cast cricket as cupid, making the young heroine fall for her dashing tenant when he scores a century.

For several years after Love Marriage, there was no cricket on the silver screen. But in the 1970s, when India beat England in England, and the West Indies in the West Indies – where batsman Sunil Gavaskar, having scored 774 runs in his debut Test series, was celebrated with a calypso song – cricketers became stars and even began appearing in films.

Gavaskar sang, danced and screamed “I love you” in a Marathi language film, and Salim Durani, a dashing Afghan-born Indian all-rounder known for hitting boundaries on fans’ demand, was cast as the romantic lead in a rather dreary Bollywood film, titled Charitra (Character).

Although these films did not do well at the box office, Bollywood began warming up to the idea of releasing cricket-related films around big tournaments and wins to cash in on the cricket craze.


In the 1980s, after India won their first World Cup, two cricketers from the winning squad were cast in a Bollywood film: batsman Sandeep Patil played the romantic interest of two women in a film, titled Kabhie Ajnabi The (We Were Strangers Once), with wicketkeeper Syed Kirmani playing a baddie.

In the same decade, two terribly tacky films, whose fictional plot involved a rivalry between cricketers, were also released. One was a romantic melodrama, and the other, Awwal Number (Number One), was plain bizarre. Its climactic sequence involved two helicopters and a cricketer, miffed at being dropped, trying to blow up a pitch where an India vs Australia match was under way.

“The cricket [in these films] was lame,” Vasan Bala, a Bollywood writer-director, told Al Jazeera.

“Growing up, we just knew that cricket and Bollywood never work. It was a completely jinxed thing.”

One film changed that.

The film that broke the jinx

Lagaan: Once Upon A Time In India, directed by Ashutosh Gowarikar with Bollywood star Aamir Khan in the lead, was released in 2001.

It was a massive hit and was nominated in the Best Foreign Film category at the Academy Awards.

Lagaan did not win, but it broke the jinx at home. It also split India’s cricket-in-cinema story into two – the drought before Lagaan, and the deluge after.

Set in the 1890s during the British Raj, in an Indian village that is reeling under drought and heavy taxation, the story of Lagaan (Tax) was not just about cricket. It was about colonial injustice, caste discrimination and moral conviction.

The film’s fictional story took inspiration from the first “all-Indian” cricket team that toured England in 1911.

The three-hour-and-38-minute long film was about what a ragtag team of poor villagers — Hindus, including, a disabled Dalit man with a natural spin, a Sikh, and a Muslim — do after a British officer challenges them to a game of cricket: “Beat us and no tax will be levied for two years. But if you lose, the tax will be tripled.”

It was a classic David versus Goliath story with a bit of romance and nationalistic fervour thrown in.

“Lagaan was a very clever film … I remember watching it in a theatre where the entire cinema hall became a stadium,” said director and cricket buff Srijit Mukherji, whose biographical drama on Mithali Raj, a former captain of Indian women’s cricket team, released last year.

Lagaan came a year after cricket had suffered a devastating blow. In a shocking match-fixing scandal, then-India captain Mohammad Azharuddin was implicated along with others. The skipper, whose graceful batting and popped collar once stood for stylish integrity, had betrayed fans and tainted cricket.

“In Lagaan, the excitement was not about cricket. The excitement was about watching characters whose life depends on this game,” Bala says.

Lagaan’s motley crew of cricketers went some way to restoring faith in the game and spawned a whole new generation of cricket films, including several lookalikes in Bollywood and regional cinema that were set in small towns and gully tournaments.

Many were forgettable, but a few stood out.

As well as Iqbal, there was MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, released in 2016. Starring Sushant Singh Rajput as the eponymous lead, Dhoni, and directed by one of Bollywood’s leading directors, Neeraj Pandey, it is a biopic of India’s former captain, Mahinder Singh Dhoni.

It follows his journey from working as a ticket checker at a small railway station in a dusty town to leading India to win their second World Cup in 2011.

A less popular box office film, but no less influential, was 83.

A $34m cricket film

“A sports film is good only when it’s a good underdog story. And 1983 was a classic story of the underdog,” says director Kabir Khan. “I don’t think anything can ever be as exciting as 83 because post-83, we were never the underdogs.”

His 2021 feature film on India’s ascent to becoming world champions in England in 1983, at a time when British bookies were reportedly offering 50:1 against them, is a homage not just to an iconic tournament that is etched in India’s collective memory, ball-for-ball, wicket-to-wicket, but also to the moment at Lord’s when captain Kapil Dev raised the World Cup trophy and cricket shed its colonial legacy and became a part of India’s national identity.

“India is a country where everyone is a self-styled cricket pundit and they’re ready to give even Sachin Tendulkar tips on batting. My goal was to make a film where nobody could stand up and say, ‘This doesn’t look like the original,’” Khan said.

Khan’s team spent about two years researching the tournament, even managing to recreate a match – in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, where Kapil Dev scored 175 not-out against Zimbabwe – for which no footage existed.

Actors trained for months, and Ranveer Singh, one of Bollywood’s leading stars who played Kapil Dev, spent two weeks with the former captain; not just learning to walk, talk and play like him, but to also embody his peculiar style of reticent, gentle swagger.

In 83, cricket was stellar. But this cinematic coup came with a pricey tag. Made on a budget of $34m, 83 is one of the most expensive films ever made in India.

Critics praised the film, but four days after its release in December 2021, theatres in India began to shut down due to the third wave of COVID and the film was a box office flop.

But 83 set a new benchmark for cricket films and fired up many cinematic ambitions.

Bollywood has released five cricket films after 83, including Srijit Mukherji’s Shabaash Mithu, which traces Mithali Raj’s journey from a small town to leading India’s women’s cricket team to the final at the 2017 Women’s World Cup, which they lost to England.

“They lost the battle but they won the war against misogyny, against discrimination, against the sorry state of affairs of women’s cricket and inspired an entire generation of girls and women to pick up the sport,” Mukherji said.

There is authenticity in Shabaash Mithu’s cricketing action, but it flopped, as did all the other films.

The jinx seems to be back. Or, perhaps, genteel nostalgia and the underdog story no longer have resonance in a country that has changed.

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‘Films reflect society’

In the sequel to every David versus Goliath story, David becomes Goliath.

India is now one of the fastest-growing economies in the world and a cricket powerhouse in terms of viewership and revenue.

Meanwhile, aggressive Hindu supremacism has soared since the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014.

“Cricket and cinema are the last bastions of secularism, but they are also a reflection of our society,” writer-director Varun Grover said.

The India vs Pakistan Cricket World Cup match held in October was a blockbuster. Watched by 35 million viewers on Disney+Hotstar and more than 100,000 people in the stadium, for which tickets were reportedly sold for as high as 5,700,000 rupees ($69,170), the match was won by India.

But the crowds at Gujarat’s Narendra Modi Stadium, named after India’s prime minister, chanted “Jai Shri Ram” – a rallying cry of right-wing Hindus hailing a warrior God – as a taunt to Pakistani cricketers.

Another Bollywood film, titled Hukus Bukus, after a popular Kashmiri folk song, was released on November 3.

Set in Kashmir, it is a fictional story about a Hindu man desperately trying to build a temple dedicated to Hindu God Krishna in the contested Muslim-majority region, but he is up against Muslim politicians with vested interests. His son, a Tendulkar fan, plays a cricket match to get land for the temple.

“Films reflect society and its inflexions,” says Mukherji, “and cricket films are no different.”

Source: Al Jazeera

ICC Cricket World Cup 2023: Five things we learned in the group stage


The group stage at the 2023 Cricket World Cup has concluded and we know the four semifinalists that will compete for the trophy in India.

Hosts India – alongside Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – will now battle for the crown of world champions.

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The tournament started on October 5 with the two previous finalists going head-to-head and New Zealand exacting swift revenge on England for the defeat in the 2019 final.

Here are five key takeaways from the last six weeks.

1. India are clear favourites

India stormed the group stage of the 2023 World Cup, and a perfect record of nine wins in nine matches has been just reward for their performances.

The hosts have set the standard for which the three other semifinalists must aspire if anyone is to stop Rohit Sharma from lifting the trophy.

The highlight with the ball was bowling out Sri Lanka for 55 – the lowest total by a Test nation at a World Cup. Mohammed Shami took five wickets in the 302-run win in Mumbai.

To pick a highlight with the bat would be akin to choosing your favourite child.

Perhaps it was against Australia, and all odds, when India were three down with two runs on the board while in pursuit of 200.

Sharma was one of the three to go, but the two left in the middle, Virat Kohli and KL Rahul, were calm and composed – and in the end magnificent.

It was this six-wicket win in Chennai that said: the rest are in trouble.

2. Kohli is king

Individually, there was one particular standout moment when Kohli equalled Sachin Tendulkar’s record of 49 one-day international hundreds.

It came in the 243-run victory against South Africa, and the right-hander described it in the post-match ceremony as “the stuff of dreams”.

The fact it was achieved on his birthday was the crowning glory in front of 70,000 fans at Eden Gardens.

Kohli and Tendulkar were teammates in 2011 when India last won the World Cup.

As well as standing on the verge of a second crown, Kohli equalled Tendulkar in 277 innings while Tendulkar took more than 450 innings to reach his 49th.

3. England are in the Champions Trophy – but only just

India’s greatest threat was supposed to be the defending champions, England.

But Jos Buttler’s side were effectively already out of the race to qualify for the semifinals while everyone else was still finding their feet.

The New Zealanders exacted a swift revenge, following their 2019 defeat in the final at Lord’s, with a resounding nine-wicket win in the opening match.

A victory against Bangladesh for England was followed by a five-match losing streak, which emphatically ended their defence of the trophy.

It also left England facing the ignominy of missing out on qualification for the 2025 Champions Trophy.

Buttler’s side had to win their final two games – against Netherlands and Pakistan.

They duly obliged and in doing so ended the latter’s slim chances of reaching the last four.

4. Never write off the Australians

Australia lost their first two matches, including their opening match against India, and seemed like they could be the first team out.

Seven straight wins followed for Pat Cummins’s side, capped by one of, if not the, most incredible moments at a World Cup.

Batting on virtually one leg, Glenn Maxwell made a stunning 201 not out against Afghanistan and guided Australia to a three-wicket win.

It also confirmed the Aussies’ place in the semifinals and the entire innings contained 128 balls with 21 fours and 10 sixes.

Cummins said it was “the greatest one-day innings ever played” and it came with the Australians 91-7, chasing 292.

This all came on the back of Maxwell hitting a 41-run century against the Netherlands – the fastest at a World Cup.

5. South Africa may be turning a corner

South Africa have been the nearly men of Cricket World Cups since their 1999 implosion in the semifinal against Australia at Headingley in Leeds, England.

The unkind and maybe a little unfair nickname of “chokers” has followed them ever since.

They too laid down an early marker at this tournament when Aiden Markram recorded the then-fastest century at a World Cup (since stolen by Maxwell).

It was only the second day of the tournament in India when he brought up the three figures in style against Sri Lanka in Dehli.

His team also entered the record books with the highest-ever tournament total of 428 in a 102-run win.

South Africa could have been considered India’s greatest challengers in the semifinals but for their meeting in the group stage. One of only two defeats for the Proteas saw them humbled by the hosts in a 243-run defeat as they were bowled out for 83 in Kolkata.

Source: Al Jazeera

The US is facing a loneliness ‘epidemic’. Can art help reverse the trend?


Early one morning in the spring of 1969, Jeremy Nobel went downstairs to the living room of his family home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to get ready for school.

There, he found his father sitting on the sofa, looking as white as a sheet and clearly in pain. He instructed Nobel, who was 15 years old at the time, to wake his mother and have her call for help.

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The police soon arrived. They slipped an oxygen mask on his father’s face, loaded him onto a stretcher and whisked him off to the local medical centre.

That was the last time Nobel saw his father alive. He died of a heart attack at 47 years old.

After his father’s death, Nobel felt despondent, rudderless. Though he kept up with his school activities and friends, Nobel experienced what he calls spiritual or existential loneliness. He questioned his self-worth and how he could lead a safe and secure life.

He did not talk at all about his father’s death with his friends. “The loneliness was below the surface,” he said.

Looking back, Nobel sees that day in 1969 as pivotal to who he is today: a primary-care physician, public health practitioner and faculty member at Harvard Medical School. But he wishes he had received guidance at the time to help him cope with the loneliness he felt.

Now, more than 50 years later, he has written a book to do just that for others. Published last month, Project UnLonely: Healing Our Crisis of Disconnection aims to unravel how loneliness can affect physical and mental health — and how it can be addressed.

A national epidemic

The book comes at a time when health experts are raising the alarm on loneliness. In May, the United States Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, released an advisory highlighting loneliness as an “epidemic” and a public health “crisis”.

The advisory defined loneliness as a “distressing experience” arising from “perceived isolation or inadequate meaningful connections”. It added, however, that loneliness is subjective, happening when there is a discrepancy between “an individual’s preferred and actual experiences”.

Still, the Surgeon General said loneliness is “more widespread than other major health issues in the US”, including diabetes and obesity.

Even before COVID-19, about half of American adults said they were experiencing loneliness, the advisory explained. The situation only got worse during the pandemic, when many people were cut off from friends and family and lost work or loved ones.

Though most people feel lonely sometimes, a chronic sense of isolation can have vast health ramifications, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety and premature death.

A Meta-Gallup poll from October indicated that the problem was worldwide. Nearly one in four people, surveyed from across 140 countries, identified as “very” or “fairly lonely”.

“Loneliness is not an illness or a disease. It’s a brain state, it’s a mood, it’s an emotion,” Nobel said.

“The human experience of loneliness can be perhaps best viewed as a biologic signal that there’s something you need, just as thirst is a biologic signal that you need hydration. It’s very good that we’re thirsty, and yet if you become toxically thirsty or dehydrated, you could die from that.”

Nobel has studied loneliness for almost 20 years. He even developed a course on the subject, entitled Loneliness and Public Health, and founded and leads a nonprofit that helps address loneliness through community programming.

His interest in social isolation began in the early 1980s when he was working as a primary care physician in Boston.

As he treated patients of different ages and backgrounds, he started to notice how loneliness can have direct effects on other aspects of their healthcare. They skipped taking their prescribed medications, for instance, or did not schedule follow-up visits.

“Loneliness changes how we behave,” Nobel said. “Our motivation for self-care, taking medications in a timely and appropriate way, partnering with the healthcare delivery system in effective ways — that ability and the motivation to do that becomes weaker as people become lonely.”

While many experts agree that loneliness is a serious health problem, some question calling it an epidemic.

Eric Klinenberg, a sociology professor at New York University, said that “epidemic” implies a significant spike in loneliness. He explained there is not strong enough evidence to support that claim.

“Studies of loneliness are all over the map, and the trends over time are hard to assess,” he said.

“If we call it an epidemic, we signal that it requires extra attention and also that it requires less attention when it ebbs. I think it’s more accurate, and more helpful, to define it as a durable health problem, one that is tied up in modern life and has been for ages.”

Creativity fosters connection

However loneliness is labelled, organisations and individuals are adopting different strategies to tackle it.

The Surgeon General’s report outlines a framework to advance social connections. It includes strengthening community infrastructure like parks and libraries, educating healthcare providers and reducing the potential harms of socialising online.

For Nobel, part of the solution lies in the arts. His interest in that approach was piqued after visiting a 2002 art show. The pictures on display were from children in New York City, depicting what they had experienced during the attacks on September 11, 2001.

Nobel noticed that even if the young artists could not discuss their feelings, they could talk about their art. Studies show that creativity can help foster social connections.

“One of the ways creative arts can be healing is because it allows people to re-explore various things consciously and unconsciously that may be holding them back and causing loneliness,” Nobel said.

After the art show, he felt a renewed passion to explore his creative side, including through poetry. Art allowed him to identify and shape his own story. “I couldn’t have told this story about my dad as few as 10 years ago, but you write it enough, you explore it enough.”

The link between arts and health also intrigued student Diana Shaari, currently a senior at Harvard College.

Shaari experienced loneliness firsthand during her first year of college in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic moved classes online, restricted campus visitors and closed most school buildings.

As a freshman, she knew no one on campus, and it was her first time living away from her parents. It was a solitary experience for Shaari, who describes herself as someone who thrives on social interaction.

“Every day you would wake up by yourself. You wouldn’t run into kids going to and from class. If I wanted to, I could spend an entire week or even more without seeing anyone,” Shaari said. “That all contributed to these overall feelings of loneliness. Also, just being with your own thoughts for too long is never great.”

To counter the social isolation she and her fellow students were facing, Shaari teamed up with Nobel and others to pilot a workshop at Harvard College in 2021 called Colors & Connection.

It was the first in-person event she was able to attend since starting college and her most memorable, she said. The workshop combines art-making and conversations to bring people together. It has since expanded to 31 campuses across the country.

“It was almost therapeutic,” she said. “There are certain universal elements to art and artistic expression that are really key in allowing people to connect and to feel connected with others.”

The pandemic may have exacerbated loneliness, but Nobel said there is a bright side.

Loneliness often comes with shame and stigma, which can prevent people from seeking help. But during the pandemic, loneliness was ubiquitous, Nobel said — allowing people to speak up about it more easily.

“We had a common experience of isolation. We were lonely together,” Nobel said. “That opened the window to talk about loneliness in a very healthy way.”

Source: Al Jazeera

Indonesian President Joko Widodo heads to US amid Gaza tensions


Medan, Indonesia – Indonesian President Joko Widodo is in the United States this week for a summit with President Joe Biden at the White House, and later to attend the 30th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco, amid the continuing Israel-Gaza war.

The visit has prompted questions about whether Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, will call for a ceasefire in Gaza.

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The issue is particularly heated as the Indonesia Hospital, located in north Gaza, has been encircled by Israeli forces.

The hospital was built in 2011 with donations from Indonesian citizens and organisations, including the Indonesian Red Cross Society and the Muhammadiyah Society, one of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisations. It was officially inaugurated in 2016 by the then-Indonesian vice president, Jusuf Kalla.

Three Indonesian volunteers with the Indonesian humanitarian organisation the Medical Emergency Rescue Committee (MER-C), which organised the donations to build the hospital, are currently based in north Gaza.

However, despite the grim situation in the besieged enclave, experts told Al Jazeera that Widodo was likely to use the visit to the White House to discuss a wide range of issues.

“He will likely discuss several matters related to investment and trade, especially related to the relocation of the capital and critical minerals such as nickel, downstreaming and the production of electric vehicles in Indonesia,” said Ahmad Rizky M Umar, an associate lecturer at the University of Queensland.

Trade and investment

As an outgoing president whose second, and final, term in office will end next year, Widodo is likely to be concerned with securing his legacy and shoring up current projects already in the works, such as plans to relocate 1.5 million of Jakarta’s 11 million residents to East Kalimantan under the new capital city project estimated to cost some $32bn.

Umar added that Widodo would probably also discuss Indonesia’s membership of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which might make it more attractive to investors given the organisation’s commitment to best practices, as Southeast Asia’s biggest economy looks to lure more US entrepreneurs.

“He will also probably discuss the elevation of bilateral cooperation between Indonesia and the United States into a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’,” Umar said.

According to the White House, the theme for this year’s APEC is “Creating a Resilient and Sustainable Future for All” with the aim of building “an interconnected, innovative and inclusive” region and advancing “a free, fair and open economic policy agenda that benefits US workers, businesses and families”.

APEC was established in 1989 and has 21 members including Indonesia, Australia, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the United States and Vietnam, comprising nearly 3 billion people and contributing 62 percent to the world’s gross domestic product (GDP), while controlling almost half of all global trade.

Indonesia itself is also a major emerging economy which some estimate could rank in the top five economies globally by the middle of the century.

Yohanes Sulaiman, a lecturer in international relations at Universitas Jenderal Achmad Yani in Bandung, told Al Jazeera that, while Widodo might mention Palestine, it would not be the main topic of conversation.

The US has backed Israel since Hamas launched a surprise wave of attacks on October 7 killing at least 1,200 people and taking at least 200 more captive.

After the assault, Israel declared war on Hamas and has subjected Gaza, home to some 2.3 million people, to relentless bombardment.

More than 11,000 people have been killed.

“I think he will focus on the economy and wider Indonesian relations with the United States. He is not the kind of leader who will get on his soapbox with America. He will want to make sure that relations with the United States are running smoothly,” he said.

“He will be focused on what Indonesia can gain from the visit and not spend too much time on other issues. It will be a transactional meeting.”

An open letter to Widodo

However, much as Widodo may want to focus on economic matters, the thorny issue of the Indonesia Hospital is likely to be difficult to ignore.

“I suspect he will talk about Palestine, especially regarding humanitarian aid and a ceasefire, because Israel itself has accused the Indonesia Hospital of being a Hamas hideout,” University of Queensland lecturer Umar said.

Last week, Israel accused the Indonesia Hospital of harbouring Hamas fighters in tunnels under the building.

Indonesia’s foreign ministry rejected the allegations, saying that the Indonesia Hospital was to “fully” serve Palestinians.

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country with 207 million of its 270 million people following Islam. The country does not have formal diplomatic relations with Israel and there is no Israeli embassy in Indonesia.

Indonesian citizens and the government have long been seen as sympathetic to the Palestinian cause – hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets of Jakarta in recent weeks to call for a ceasefire – but there have been periodic attempts to thaw relations with Israel, including under former President Abdurrahman Wahid.

On November 11, MER-C issued an open letter to Widodo, calling on him to use his visit to the White House to “save the Indonesia Hospital”.

“Today marks the 36th day of the world witnessing indiscriminate aggression, murder, and mass slaughter of civilians in the Gaza Strip, the majority of whom are women and children […] all hospitals in the Gaza Strip, have fallen victim to the brutality of the Israeli military,” the letter said.

It added that the Indonesia Hospital was trying to operate amid total darkness and a shortage of medications.

MER-C continued that it hoped that Widodo would raise the issue of the hospital during his meeting with Biden, and “exert pressure on the world, especially the United States, to immediately initiate a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and save the Indonesia Hospital from Israeli attacks”.

“Will the world and our Indonesian nation continue to remain silent in the face of this?” the letter said.

Source: Al Jazeera