RAMADAN ON SESAME STREET

Not Even Water

We are now well and truly in the blessed month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic year. Because the Islamic calendar is based on a lunar cycle and the western (Gregorian) calendar is based on a solar cycle, Ramadan keeps shifting back about 11 days every year, which is why this year’s start of the month is earlier than last years, as will be the case next year.

For me this month is an intense spiritual period where we Muslims step up a gear, where we try to be a better version of ourselves compared to the previous 11 lunar months. I remember reading Ramadan being described as ‘high altitude training for the soul.’ This is the month where we use the power of fasting to check ourselves before we wreck ourselves. This month is when we Muslims try to rebalance our spirituality, in order to gain further insight into our faith, a concept best expressed by the Muslim caliph Imam Ali:

Conquer your lustful desires and your wisdom will be perfected. – Imam Ali (AS)

Also, it is this time of year where Muslims have to listen to the famous non-Muslim proverb of “What? Not even water?” There is even a website called notevenwater that provides further details of Ramadan. The idea of fasting for religious purposes is something that other faiths, such as Christianity, are also fully aware of:

We observe that in the scriptures, fasting almost always is linked with prayer. Without prayer, fasting is not complete fasting; it’s simply going hungry. – Joseph B Wirthlin

As expected, there is currently a glut of articles written about Islam, Muslims, fasting, and Ramadan. Below is my attempt to collate a few bits and bobs that I have come across over the past few days, things that I hope provide further awareness and deeper understanding of what Ramadan is all about. Enjoy!


An interesting article about Ramadan and the British retail industry…

Fun, Fashion And Halal Lipstick: Retailers Cash In On £200m Ramadan Economy

Harriet Sherwood, 29 Apr 2018, theguardian.com

Muslims observing Ramadan are increasingly being targeted by supermarkets and brands in the UK, which has led to a rise in spending on food and gifts during the month, according to new research.

The Ramadan economy in the UK is worth at least £200m, with supermarket chains such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons increasingly gearing products, displays and special offers on popular food items to Ramadan in areas with significant Muslim populations. This year, for example, Morrisons is selling a Ramadan countdown calendar, similar to an Advent calendar, aimed at children.

The month-long Muslim religious observance starts in mid-May and its ending is marked with the Eid al-Fitr holiday. MAC cosmetics, the Body Shop and Godiva chocolates are some of the brands specifically packaging goods as Eid gifts.


Why do Muslims fast? Here is an interesting answer…

The most common question I get from people of different faiths has to be why we fast. Many people answer this question with a response, “to feel how the poor feel when they have nothing to eat.” Personally, I think that since fasting in Ramadan is not that difficult, it is almost an insult to claim that it is to feel the poor’s hunger. The hunger they feel is much greater, especially since they may not know when their next meal will come. Fasting is a means to gain something called Taqwa. Taqwa is an Arabic word that means many things, such as being aware that Allah (our word for God) has full knowledge of your actions and intentions. In Islam, Allah has knowledge of everything we do and even think. Fasting is more than abstaining from food and drink. It is understanding that Allah has full knowledge. And because of this, we must navigate through the world with caution of our actions and intentions – to be good to our fellow human beings and to yourself. All of our deeds and intentions should be virtuous and for the sake of Allah. Ramadan is an opportune time to be able to reflect and be more aware of this. – Dr Magda Abdelfattah, May 2018, from an interview in the Wisconsin Muslim Journal


My favourite Ramadan 2018 tweets so far…


Wajahat Ali wants more from his Ramadan…

This Ramadan, I’ll Try Praying for Enemies, Friends, Frenemies and Kanye West

Wajahat Ali, 16 May 2018, nytimes.com

In recent years, Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, has become part of mainstream American society. It is frequently cited in hip-hop and even made an appearance in Eminem’s epic freestyle takedown of President Trump at the BET Awards. In keeping with the tradition started by Thomas Jefferson, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama hosted community leaders and dignitaries at Ramadan dinners featuring a variety of exquisite halal meats. (Mr. Trump eliminated that beautiful gathering. That’s not surprising given his belief that “Islam hates us.”)

The holy month is now even linked to the most sacred American tradition, consumerism: Party City has introduced a line of Ramadan decorations featuring mosques, stars and crescent symbols.

But I want more. This Ramadan, I’m in search of something substantive that nurtures my soul and truly transforms America, which is wounded, suffering from a resurgence in open expressions of hate against racial and religious minorities, and politicians who seek to profit off the divides. I know the solution will start at home, so this month, I aspire to evolve into an overweight, middle-aged superhero without a cape, disciplined and mindful, grateful for my privileges, spiritually aware and more compassionate. I’ll try praying for enemies, friends, frenemies and Kanye West.

The Arabic root for the word Ramadan means “scorched.” The month deliberately disrupts your routine, your comfort and your mode of thinking. You hunger, you thirst, you long for sex, you engage with family members and community members that you’d otherwise avoid and disown.

The disruptions bring pain and annoyance, but they can also create opportunities for growth. I welcome these strictures as an invitation to expand my community and capacity for generosity. This might sound like a Deepak Chopra Hallmark card, but I really do try to practice what I preach.

Try is the key word here. The hassles of everyday life don’t stop during Ramadan.


The casual Muslim Zanny Ali confesses all…

On Ramadan – Confessions Of A Casual Muslim

Zanny Ali, 16 May 2018, refinery29.uk

I wouldn’t say I’m a bad Muslim. I wouldn’t say I’m a particularly good one. I’m not so sure you can even say either of those things about someone that follows Islam. There’s a sense that, simply put, you are or you aren’t a Muslim. But what about someone that’s a ‘bad’ Muslim for 11 months of the year and then tops up on God points for 30 days during Ramadan? That’s the category I’d fall into.

Still, I identify as Muslim. I am Muslim – albeit a sinful one for most of the year, during which I’ll overindulge without a second thought: eat and drink what and when I want, stay up all night, live the life of a heathen. Then for one month I’ll be on lockdown: eating well, no boozing, early nights, working hard, thinking pure thoughts. It is genuinely my favourite time of the year and I always look forward to it.

I wouldn’t say I’m a bad Muslim. I wouldn’t say I’m a particularly good one. I’m not so sure you can even say either of those things about someone that follows Islam. There’s a sense that, simply put, you are or you aren’t a Muslim. But what about someone that’s a ‘bad’ Muslim for 11 months of the year and then tops up on God points for 30 days during Ramadan? That’s the category I’d fall into.

Still, I identify as Muslim. I am Muslim – albeit a sinful one for most of the year, during which I’ll overindulge without a second thought: eat and drink what and when I want, stay up all night, live the life of a heathen. Then for one month I’ll be on lockdown: eating well, no boozing, early nights, working hard, thinking pure thoughts. It is genuinely my favourite time of the year and I always look forward to it.

Towards the end of the month, with nearly 30 days of clear(er) thinking in the bank, it becomes obvious that Ramadan is not about the hunger or thirst at all. My favourite thing about Ramadan, and one of the things that made me start fasting again in my mid-twenties, was seeing how it brought family and friends together each day. Having the excuse and making the effort to see my large extended family, and eating with them at sundown, is something I cherish. Every day there is genuinely something to look forward to. How many are fortunate enough to say that? And what I’m most anticipating on Eid isn’t being able to stuff my face during the day, or going to meet my friends for a drink afterwards – it’s seeing my family all together.

For me, Ramadan serves as a reminder to do things that I should already be doing throughout the year. To be kind, to help people out. I shouldn’t need a month of fasting to be reminded of this, but it does help. It is carrying out, or at least trying to carry out, these lessons for the rest of the year that forms a large part of my identity as a Muslim, despite other people’s assumptions of what a Muslim is or should be. And in the current political climate, with some idiots-calling-themselves-Muslims preying on the softest of soft targets with increasing regularity, it does make you rethink your own relationship to your religion and the expectations that go with it.

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WHY DO PALESTINIANS THROW ROCKS?

Aggressor

The current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington is the most divisive politician of modern times. Bear in mind in this modern era we have had politicians such as Margaret Thatcher, Robert Mugabe, Tony Blair, Nigel Farage, George W Bush, Vladimir Putin, and many other contenders to the throne of undisguised tribalism.

Politics all around the world is moving quickly and dangerously to the extreme ends of the political spectrum. Divisions are growing not just between countries but within them. In Britain we have a virtually empty centre ground, with only the Liberal Democrats clinging on to dear hope. And then at one end we have the austerity mad immigrant hating Conservatives, and at the other end we have the increasingly anti-Semitic socialism of Labour.

Over in the States the right continues to radicalize, becoming more and more ideologically homogenous and extreme. This has resulted in a white supremacist now in power, supported by the predominantly white Republican Party and its base. Trump is opposed by the Democrats, a toothless party who are meandering politically with no clear direction. Whilst American society is increasing in diversity, it is also paradoxically becoming more and more polarised and segregated, as described in detail in the Washington Post.

This does not bode well for the future of politics as politicians all over the world, especially conservative politicians, now know that anything goes. According to journalist David Roberts in order to have “a long and comfortable career in conservative politics…corruption in service to tribe is no vice at all.” Which basically means that if you think things are bad now then you ain’t seen nothing yet. In the same article Roberts goes on to describe a link between the Republicans, Trump and tribalism:

The GOP has rolled over for Trump like a puppy. His naked corruption and overt authoritarian tendencies do not occasion any oversight or even objection, because they are deployed on behalf of the tribe. When you are involved in zero-sum warfare, the ends justify any means…For the tribalist, there are only opposing tribes and the battle between them. Pretense to the contrary, appeals to any sort of trans-partisan standards or restraints, are merely a ruse, a gambit in the endless war. – David Roberts

This ‘them’ and ‘us’ narrative is hardly a new one, indeed it’s as old as human history, but the increasing ease with which populists are adopting and exploiting this is disturbing. Whether the ‘them’ in question refers to immigrants, perceived scroungers, elites, people of another political persuasion, or even adjacent countries, one of the most pervasive effects of globalism seems to be how easy it is to convince people that they’re missing out. A simple way that Trump divides groups into ‘them’ and ‘us’ is through the use of pronouns such as ‘them’ and ‘us’ in his speeches, a point noted by Time magazine:

President Trump likes to talk about “us” and “them.” In speeches and interviews, Trump frequently uses collective pronouns to talk about the United States versus other countries, especially China and Mexico, as well as to address his supporters. That’s not uncommon. A 2013 study of candidates for Australian prime minister since 1901 found that the winners used “we” and “us” more frequently than their unsuccessful opponents in 80% of elections. But how Trump defines those terms is unusual, at least in American politics. In several notable instances, Trump has used “we” to refer to men, used “us” and “them” when discussing Islam and America and talked about taking down Confederate statues as “trying to take away our history.” – Ryan Teague Beckwith

Ian Bremmer, author and staunch globalist, has written a new book called Us Vs. Them: The Failure Of Globalism. The book looks at how this ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality has resulted in a worldwide explosion of growing nationalism and populism, a direct consequence of which is support for anti-establishment politicians like Trump and other far right groups. Bremmer sees little light at the end of this tunnel, as the divide between the haves and have-nots continues to sharpen, so the book offers a dark prognosis for the world and the future.

Whilst the book is well worth reading in full (Bremmer has a very confident writing style) presented below are 2 quotes that offer a taste of what the book is like. The first speaks about the overall failure of globalisation and the subsequent rise in inequality, whilst the second is about Trump and the state of democracy in the ‘them’ and ‘us’ culture we find ourselves in. Enjoy!

PS Before we start, here is a little joke from the American comedian Jay Leno about throwing rocks…

An Israeli man’s life was saved when he was given a Palestinian man’s heart in a heart transplant operation. The guy is doing fine, but the bad news is, he can’t stop throwing rocks at himself. – Jay Leno

Anyways, on to the excerpts from the book Us Vs. Them: The Failure Of Globalism by Ian Bremmer…

Ian Us Them

Why do Palestinians throw rocks? To attract attention? To improve their lives? To make progress toward creation of a Palestinian state? They throw rocks because they want others to see that they’ve had enough, that they can’t be ignored, and that they can break things. Voting isn’t helping them. Outsiders don’t care. Where are the opportunities to bring about change? There is nothing left but to throw rocks.

In that sense, there will soon be Palestinians all over the world. Workers everywhere fear lost jobs and wages as a shifting global economy and technological change leave them behind. Citizens fear surging waves of strangers who alter the face and voice of the country they know. They fear terrorists and criminals who kill for reasons no one can understand. They fear that government cannot or will not protect them. Gripped by anxiety, they get angry. To make themselves seen, heard, and felt, they start to throw rocks.

Then the call for help is answered. Donald Trump tells an excited overflow crowd that he sees them, that he sees their enemies, and that only he can take them (back) to the promised land. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders tell cheering fans that big corporations and Wall Street banks are robbing them blind. Champions of Brexit tell voters they must reclaim Britain’s borders and reject laws and rules imposed by Europeans. European populists tell followers they will lead the charge of patriots against foreigners and globalists.

These leaders aren’t arguing that government should be bigger or smaller, that it should tax less or spend more. They’re challenging the right of “elites” to make the rules that govern our lives. They tell citizens they’ve been cheated of their chance to succeed, and that the media is in on it. They promise to comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable, and burn down the houses of power.

We can attack these populists, mock them, or dismiss them, but they know something important about the people they’re talking to, and they understand that many people believe that “globalism” and “globalization” have failed them. These would‑be leaders have a talent for drawing boundaries between people. They offer a compelling vision of division, of “us vs. them,” of the worthy citizen fighting for his rights against the entitled or grasping thief. Depending on the country and the moment, “them” may mean rich people or poor people, foreigners or religious, racial, and ethnic minorities. It can mean supporters of a rival political party or people who live in a different part of the country. It can mean politicians, bankers, or reporters. However applied, it’s a tried-and-true political tool.

This book is not about the rocks or the damage they do on impact. Rocks are expressions of frustration. They don’t solve problems. Instead, we must look more closely at the deeper sources of these frustrations, at how governments around the world are likely to respond to them, and how political leaders, institutions, companies, schools, and citizens can work together to make things better.

There was no wealth where I grew up in Chelsea, Massachusetts, but from my childhood street you could see it in Boston’s green and gold skyline. I had no idea what went on inside those towers, but they had my attention. How do you get from here to there, I wondered? When my high school offered a program called “Teach a Kid How America Works,” I leaped at the chance to join. We junior achievers put on our coats and ties, headed downtown, up the crowded streets, past the men in suits, through the tall glass doors, up the quiet elevator before gliding to a silent stop, waiting, and stepping into the place where the executives worked. I think it was a bank. It had the deepest carpet I’d ever seen.

Then we were ushered in for an audience with Tim, a man who seemed genuinely glad to meet us. He had a strong handshake, and he looked at me like he was really looking at me. “Would you like to work here?” he asked the group. One of us said yes and the rest nodded in agreement. “Nobody’s stopping you, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If you want to be successful, you just have to study hard and work hard. It’s totally up to you.” He believed it, so I did too.

He was right. From the projects, I earned a college scholarship and then a PhD, got an idea, launched a company, made money, got on TV, and wrote books. A kid born on the hard edge of a great American city, the child of a single mother (my dad died when I was four) who, with uncommon singleness of purpose, walked two boys past every trap and pushed us toward success. One small example of the American dream.

As a young adult, the American dream came wrapped in a package of “globalism,” a belief in universal interdependence and international exchange that seemed to provide paths to prosperity for both the poor boy I was and the successful man I hoped to become. Globalism seemed a generous choice; it’s the game everyone can win. Embrace capitalism, lower the walls, hire, build, and expand. People who’ve made it, or who believe they’ll get a fair shot, are drawn to globalism. I devoted my professional life to it. Why not? The system worked for me, and it has lifted hundreds of millions around the world from poverty. Why can’t it one day work for everyone?

It didn’t, and it hasn’t. An early counterexample came with the rioting at the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization, where what began as a peaceful, well-organized, pro-labor protest became a magnet for anticorporate, antinuclear, anti-what-else‑ya‑got anarchist street theater, and then a running battle between kids dodging rubber bullets and cops dodging rocks. Globalists didn’t pay much attention. In retrospect, it was a warning sign.

In 2008, years of deregulation, bad bets, and bad faith brought down some of the world’s biggest banks, sending shock waves around the world. Next came the Occupy Wall Street movement, leaving bankers worried that the vagrants might get violent. The World Economic Forum at Davos that year was fascinating. No one knew how bad things would get for the global economy or what would happen next. But then came the bailouts for banks, which stabilized the markets. China’s leaders injected billions to keep China’s economic engine humming, the world’s elites went back to business, and Wall Street’s occupiers went home.

The Arab world’s aborted revolutions got our attention, and the refugee crises it triggered brought them closer to home, but it wasn’t until Britain voted to leave the European Union that the indictment of globalism became unavoidably obvious. Then Donald J. Trump was elected president of the United States.

Today, the watchword is inequality. We have always known the world remained an unfair place, but most of the world’s elites believed, with plenty of evidence, that globalism was the solution, not the problem. But while the elites convene for debate, more people are getting frustrated.

Back in Chelsea, in my old neighborhood, people are angry. They no longer believe that hard work and education are enough. They don’t see a path, and they feel they’ve been lied to. For decades. My brother voted for Donald Trump, and if my mother were alive, I bet she would have too. She certainly wouldn’t have voted for anyone who has spent any time in Washington over the past thirty years. The anger is becoming more obvious—in Appalachia, in Gaza, in Latin America, in North Africa, and in Eastern Europe.


No one voted for Donald Trump because he believed the United States was growing more secure and more prosperous. In a country where working-age men without jobs outnumber those with jobs by three to one, and half of unemployed men take daily pain medication, a lot of people want “change.” It’s hard to imagine what sort of future Americans can expect if the fate of these people is ignored.

It’s easy to find fault with populists like Trump. He’s obnoxious, dishonest, and incompetent. But Donald Trump didn’t create “us vs. them”. “Us vs. them” created Donald Trump, and those who dismiss his supporters are damaging the United States.

There are good reasons to want smaller government. It’s natural to fear that Washington spends too much money. There are reasons to worry that political correctness will kill freedom of speech and the birth of good ideas. There are plenty of Americans who care sincerely about people with preexisting medical conditions, but who fear that creation of another entitlement program will one day bankrupt the country, leaving government without money to cover anyone.

These people aren’t stupid or mean-spirited. They don’t hate poor people. Some of them are poor people. Many are Americans who fear that intellect too often overrides common sense, that their countrymen are more interested in what they can get than in who will pay, that too many politicians care more about universal ideals than about American workers and their families, and that the country they knew is fading away.

Many Trump voters, including those who once supported Barack Obama, backed him because they wanted change. Actual change, not the kind of change promised on campaign posters. There’s a working class in the United States that really has seen more losses than gains from free trade. U.S. infrastructure is crumbling, the country’s education system is underperforming, its health care system is in real trouble, and the U.S. penal system doesn’t work. American soldiers have fought and died in wars that seemed to accomplish nothing and that were never adequately explained to the American people.

These failures belong to the entire U.S. political establishment. Citizens feel lied to or ignored — by politicians, the mainstream media, the business elite, bankers, and public intellectuals. They believe the game is rigged in someone else’s favor, and they have a point.

American democracy itself is eroding. Donald Trump was elected president with votes from 26.3 percent of eligible voters. Hillary Clinton won 26.5 percent, but lost the electoral college. Yet here is the most revealing number: Nearly 45 percent of eligible American voters didn’t vote at all.

Some didn’t show up because they felt their vote represented a drop in the ocean, and some lived in states where the outcome wasn’t in doubt. Others felt that none of the candidates could or would make things better. But many of these more than 100 million eligible American voters just didn’t believe the outcome mattered. Just 36.4 percent of those eligible voted in the 2014 midterm congressional elections.

It gets worse. According to a study published in The Journal of Democracy, the share of young Americans who say it’s important to live in a democratic country has dropped from 91 percent in the 1930s to 57 percent today. Fewer than one in three young Americans say that it’s important to live in a democracy. In 1995, just one in sixteen Americans agreed that it would be “good” or “very good” to have military rule in the United States. In 2016, it was one in six.

Trump has made things worse. He has further poisoned the attitudes of his followers toward government and the media, inflicted lasting damage on U.S. ties with close allies, and embarrassed the country before the world. Worst of all, he has deliberately pitted Americans against one another for political gain. We see the polarized electorate in Trump’s own poll numbers. His supporters have backed him through conflicts and controversies that would have ended the careers of any other public official, and his detractors wouldn’t thank him if he pulled them from a burning building.

But when critics focus on the man and ignore the underlying emergencies that lifted him to the White House, they exacerbate the American problem of “us vs. them”. They make it easier to build walls and harder to help those who need help most. It’s much easier to mock Donald Trump, rail at his excesses, and caricature his backers than to work toward solutions to the problems that leave many convinced they have no future and that their fellow Americans don’t care.

As in the United States, it’s easy to demonize those Europeans who fear open borders as heartless racists who care nothing for refugees and hate Muslims. We can ignore those who say their governments have ceded too much power to bureaucrats in Brussels. But these people know that if they welcome unlimited numbers of migrants, they’re inviting large numbers of people to risk their lives and those of their children to make the journey and that smaller European countries will struggle to manage the overflow. They’re right that not all these migrants are truly refugees, and that encouraging so many to leave their home countries allows autocrats in North Africa and the Middle East to drive out those who don’t support them. It is not racist to acknowledge that the best of intentions sometimes produce terrible consequences.

Further, democracy is undermined when growing numbers of the decisions that govern people’s lives are made by people who don’t stand for election within the borders of their countries. Attacking political demagogues like Beppe Grillo and Marine Le Pen is one thing. Dismissing the hopes and fears of those who turn to them exacerbates the problem of us vs. them and makes it more difficult to rework the European social contract in ways that both left and right can accept.

Challenges that are serious for the United States and Europe are even more daunting for developing countries. The introduction of automation and artificial intelligence into the workplace will create more turmoil for workers in wealthy countries, but it will be profoundly disruptive in the developing world, where there will be fewer factory jobs to pull less educated people from the countryside into the urban workforce. Governments without money to invest in technological innovation—and to upgrade education systems and retraining programs to help citizens profit from it — will create fewer opportunities for young people. Social unrest will test the resilience of governments, and political officials will stoke more conflict between us and them to protect their own power and influence.

The result will be a widening of the divide between wealthy countries and poor ones — and between rich and poor within each country. And if we focus mainly on the demagoguery of the populists who try to take advantage of these trends, we will only widen the gap between those who can afford to ignore them and those who can’t.

There is another danger common to every nation on Earth.

Each year, human beings now produce more data than in every previous year combined.

The choices we make, particularly online, help algorithms understand our interests, wants, and needs better than our friends and families do. Add the reality that people are easy to influence. Fake news generated on the Internet shapes public perception in ways we still don’t fully appreciate, and a coming wave of digitally sophisticated fake images and video will complicate things further.

It’s not difficult to imagine a world in which technical specialists looking to make money help politicians looking to gain power understand and manipulate us in ways that undermine the political influence of citizens in every country.

Over time, people wise up. They become less easy to fool. But they can easily become more cynical, and that can lead them to turn their backs on politics altogether, leaving elections to be decided by the angriest and most opinionated.

In the meantime, there are choices to make. Build walls? Or rewrite the social contract? Both strategies can work in many countries, at least for a while. Both demand capable government with the resources to construct and sustain these systems. The construction of walls won’t kill the idea of responsive government. It will simply create a form of digital apartheid that ensures some are well served while others aren’t served at all. As in Israel. And, increasingly, as in the United States.

Reinvention of the social contract is going to be politically impossible in many countries for many years to come. The sense of crisis isn’t yet strong enough, because so many globalists continue to profit from the system as it is, and walls of various kinds will protect them, temporarily, from real danger. Things have to become much worse, particularly for the winners, before they can become better for everyone else. This is the ultimate failure of globalism.

Where and when it becomes possible to experiment, efforts to rewrite the social contract will work most easily in countries with relatively homogenous societies, borders that face relatively little pressure, and the means to continually expand economic productivity. But this principle can work in any country where a positive political consensus is possible. Remaking the relationship between citizens and government is much more likely than the construction of walls to create lasting security and prosperity for the greatest number of people.

History and personal experience show that people give their best when the best is required of them. That day is coming sooner than we think. Even those who think they want war will change their minds when they see its costs. Human beings use their natural ingenuity to create the tools they need to survive. In this case, survival requires that we invent new ways to live together.

Necessity must again become the mother of invention.