JUN 21, 2017
"Voices" Heard from Syrian Refugee Crisis
In news coverage and media portrayals, especially those of the refugee crisis, putting personal names to suffering remains uncommon. Television screens, after all, graze over the surface of stories, usually highlighting statistics or events with a notable lack of the personal. In her recent book, “We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled: Voices from Syria” (Custom House, 2017) Wendy Pearlman seeks to rectify this oversight.
Containing a wealth of personal accounts gleaned from the hundreds of refugees she interviewed from 2012 to 2016, Pearlman offers glimpses into the hearts and minds of those directly affected by the 2011 Syrian Uprising. Their tales tell of life before, during, and after the fateful events unfolded.
According to Kirkus Reviews, Pearlman organized her book into eight sections that reflect “the major phases of the Syrian revolutionary experience”: Authoritarianism, Hope Disappointed, Revolution, Crackdown, Militarization, Living War, Flight and Reflections. Discussing life under the Assads, father and son, on up until the eruption of the Arab Spring and the later flight of millions from the country, the book shows just how much the conflict has impacted the interviewees individually, and then ends with reflections on the possible implications for Syria’s future. Refusing to take sides, “We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled” offers insight into a plethora of viewpoints. These vary from those who openly criticize the regime to others who express persistent uneasiness when speaking ill of the government, even though the refugees have left their countries.
Careful to insert her own voice only in the introduction to the book, Pearlman puts a human face on the suffering. She documents the testimonies from a wide variety of refugees, providing a venue for their voices to be heard, while “showing them simply as people rather than either victims or security threats,” states Publishers Weekly.
With more than five million Syrians having fled their country, Pearlman traveled to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and a handful of European countries to conduct her interviews, placing herself in the hearts of communities, living with local families, visiting hospitals, and volunteering in schools and refugee centers. In her essay discussing the writing of the book, which she posted on Powell’s Books website, Pearlman explains that she conducted a majority of her interviews in Arabic, which granted her a personal interviewer-interviewee connection with her subjects, while also decreasing any misinterpretation of nuances. At the end of the day, “We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled” presents personalized observations on the Syrian conflict that ultimately reveal that “there is no right or wrong,” but only “shades of gray.”
JUN 19, 2017
Syrian Immigrant’s New Book Has Political, Allegorical ‘Teeth’
Succinct if not brief, “The Teeth of the Comb” (New Directions, 2017) leaves a resounding conglomerate of messages to any who listen to its words. Syrian-born Osama Alomar, who now resides in Pittsburgh, brings with the release of his latest book a collection of fables and allegories, each touching on politics, universal themes, and criticisms of our modern world in as much as a couple of paragraphs and as few as two sentences, as in his oft-mentioned piece, “The Knife,” which very concisely reads: “He was born with a silver knife in his mouth. And he was its first victim.”
Without limiting himself to human characters, Alomar draws upon animals – at times, even plants – and inanimate objects such as buildings to convey his thoughts. With the assistance of C.J. Collins on the translation of the book, “The Teeth of the Comb” successfully retains the “poetics of his prose,” according to Publishers Weekly. The title story, through the imagery of the uneven teeth of a comb, relays the social injustice manifest in social stratifications. Other stories comment on various topics, though each is highlighting the plight of the victims, from the poor, the marginalized and the suffering. As a Syrian writer who, after emigrating in 2008, struggled to find a paying job in the U.S., which he later found in Chicago as a cab driver, thus it is not surprising that some of his stories carry anti-capitalist connotations. But while the surface of each text exudes a certain air of cynicism, Alomar’s writings as a whole emerge with an underlying outcry for help and hope, a “plea for progress and improvement,” states Publishers Weekly. His writing style incorporates aphorism, parable, folklore, and allegory forms popular in the Arab world. Heavily philosophical in depth, his command of words dubs him an “urgent literary voice,” according to the New York Times, associating him with the likes of Franz Kafka. Importantly, one of Alomar’s major influences was Lebanese-American author and artist Kahlil Gibran, whose books he held close and dear during his time as a taxicab driver. In the words of Lucas Spiro from The Arts Fuse magazine, “His pieces not only draw on Gibran, but on Franz Kafka’s absurdity, Karl Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, Ernest Hemingway’s brevity, and William Blake’s lyrical anarchism.” Born in Damascus in 1968, Osama Alomar has authored three collections of short stories and a volume of poetry, “The Teeth of the Comb” having been released just this past April. He is now writer-in-residence at the City of Asylum.
JUN 16, 2017
No Place For Neutrality in Reporter’s Story
Souad Mekhennet’s telling memoir, “I Was Told to Come Alone” (Henry Holt and Co., 2017) delves not only into Ms. Mekhennet’s professional life as a neutral reporter, but also expands into very personal territory for the now-national security correspondent at the Washington Post. Having been brought up under two cultures herself – Muslim and Western – Mekhenned, born and raised in Germany with Moroccan-Turkish descent, has considered herself an “outlier among the journalists covering global jihad,” according to an interview conducted by John Williams for the New York Times. In her book, she describes first-hand experiences of arranging meetings with Taliban or ISIS contacts, looking back on the danger of certain encounters. Believing that one is only able to understand a person’s actions or beliefs by actually meeting them, she stresses the importance of not taking sides, as her access to contacts relied on her neutrality.
But while it was her neutrality which granted her interviews with figures behind the lines of jihad, Mekhennet’s book is very much imbued with powerful personal stories. Evidently, her personal life had major influences in the writing process of the book, with unplanned chapters being added as current events and family tragedies unfolded. In an interview, she revealed her inability to continue as the Washington Post’s neutral reporter when her own family was affected by the violence, her 14-year-old nephew killed in a 2016 attack in Munich. In her line of work, she explains, she typically is distanced from the story due to her occupation. This book, on the other hand, brought an entirely different experience: here, she was part of the story, taking writings from her own diary and reliving fearful moments. As much of a memoir as it is a report, “I Was Told to Come Alone” offers telling details from jihadi accounts while also raising a question: can a reporter truly be neutral?
APR 26, 2017
BEFORE THE SEA:
New Book Studies the Fundamental, On the Ground Sources of So-Called ‘Boat People’ Refugees
Since September 2015, when images of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned, appeared on newspapers and television alike across the globe, outcries for increased aid to refugees have become increasingly prominent. However, media coverage typically shows only one side of the migrant crisis, focusing on “boat people,” and falsely indicating that refugees only face dangerous conflicts on journeys crossing the sea. Patrick Kingsley’s recent “The New Odyssey” (Liveright, 2017) sheds light on the dangers refugees face on land and sea, following refugees, smugglers, and aid volunteers in 17 countries across three continents.
Kingsley begins in Niger, attempting to cross the so-called “second sea” of the Sahara. Similar to the dangers faced when traveling by sea, this journey also poses risks of dehydration and dangerous encounters with organ harvesters. From there, he takes to the seas, interviewing several people, including a boat smuggler who, despite having been a refugee himself in the past, takes advantage of migrants’ desperation for monetary gain. Kingsley also talks with an aid volunteer, Eric Kempson, who works on the island of Lesbos, providing food and water for new arrivals. Hashem al-Souki, whose story takes a significant part of the book, becomes one of the fortunate few who manage to secure permanent residency in Europe. Sadly, the same cannot be said for millions of others who have died from poverty or while escaping persecution.
Al-Souki’s story, according to Kingsley in an NPR interview hosted by Michel Martin, played an important part in the book because “he just feels like an every-man. And it was stories like his that I felt were best able to humanize, to ground the vastness of what was going on.” This humanization of migrants proves especially relevant in these times, where many denigrate migrant groups, dismissing them with labels like “boat people,” labels which tell nothing of the horrors they truly experience.
Some may wonder why refugees would risk death trying to reach Europe. According to Chris Serres of the Star Tribune, they simply have no other options. While the use of physical barriers blocking refugees from entering has risen recently – Hungary’s fence laced with barbed wire and President Donald Trump’s plans for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border stand as examples – Kingsley insists “people move whether we like it or not. The best way to respond is to try and manage that flow rather than to pretend that we can stop it entirely.” He stresses that “Europe’s heartless and brainless border management” lies at the heart of the crisis, “not the arrival of the refugees.”
Named foreign affairs journalist of the year at the British Journalism Awards, Patrick Kingsley, who became The Guardian’s first “migration correspondent” in 2015, currently serves as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. According to Maya Jasanoff, who reviewed “The New Odyssey” for The Guardian, Kingsley’s book, “mobilize[s] eyewitness testimony to promote empathy, and through empathy, better policy.”
(Photo credit: Tom Kingsley)
MAR 4, 2017
The Decline of Lebanese Press?
A Story of Politics, Corruption, Nepotism and Sectarianism
For quite some time, the Lebanese journalistic community has engaged in an ongoing debate concerning the future of their print media. This occurs at a time already impacted by previous closings of many literary supplements as well as political and cultural magazines, a time when many of the surviving newspapers must lay off journalists, severely reduce their daily pages, or finally close their doors, as in the case of the recent shuttering of a 43-year old daily. To a large extent, most of the Lebanese print media problems remain global, but nevertheless, indigenous or “homegrown” issues do exist.
While experts widely recognize that the introduction of new technologies and social media have impacted conventional media worldwide, Lebanon’s print media, and even its broadcast media, also face severe non-technological challenges, some rooted in the diminishment of the Arab funding resources which used to sustain so many of them.
A confessional state since its inception, Lebanon’s sectarian politics have intensified sharply, bringing an end to a period of some civility where the pages of print media acted as battlefields between ideas. As semi-secular political parties and unions disappear along with many cultural magazines and newspapers, the increasingly acrimonious sectarian divisions have eliminated any need for real discourse on controversial debate issues in favor of diatribe, replacing nuance with simplistic black and white explanations.
The external politics which have bankrolled Lebanon’s publishing industry for decades now represent the most important factors in the decline of the Lebanese press. Despite the downward spiral of their plummeting economies, which has caused the Gulf States to sever their subsidies to the Lebanese Press, those states have still developed a recognizable worldwide media of their own. This has left Lebanese journalism to gradually devolve, losing its aura of professionalism, appeal, and stature, making it less competitive, more parochial, and increasingly irrelevant beyond Lebanon’s borders.
Currently, the decline of the Lebanese press has had little impact upon its political role in Lebanese and Arab politics. Instead, it has inflicted great economic hardship and suffering upon a relatively small but significant sector of the population, the journalists and their families. Here, the journalistic community bears some responsibility because of its weak unionization, due to close ties to publishers, made possible by nepotism and sectarianism. Lack of viable unions has prevented journalists from asserting their independence from management, resulting in an inability to force owners to honor their commitments such as redressing crippling pay cuts, refraining from demanding early retirements, complying with legally required severance payments, and paying all legally due and unpaid salaries for some employees.
Meanwhile, the dependency of Lebanese print media on foreign Arab money has had devastating consequences, leaving it unable to meet challenges independently, and causing its failure to implement sensible solutions for its technological and economic difficulties. Newspapers which started publishing or expanding their businesses by using sizable foreign capital rather than responding to indigenous market needs would rather fold their publications than fall back on their own wealth, as many recent media reports indicate.
(Photo Credits: On the left, a printing press, photographed by Moreno Soppelsa from Fotolia for Britannica. On the right, a man passing by the last issue of Assafir (photo from france24).
FEB 24, 2017
New Books Present Different Faces, Facets of the Tragedy of Today's Middle East
Two of the three reviewed books in the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review (February 12, 2017) appear as a graphic adaptation of a previously published novel and a sequel to another one, almost using the same wordings, though with slight modification. Based off of the original novel by Yasmina Khadra (the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul, a former Algerian army officer who previously authored police procedurals), “The Attack” returns as a graphic novel adaptation written by Loïc Dauvillier and illustrated by Glen Chapron, examining a suicide bombing from various viewpoints. A visual retelling of Khadra’s original, which was first translated and published in English in 2007, this 2016 edition conveys the same grim and intense story with detailed artwork allowing readers not only to put faces to names but also watch as dramatic events unfold on the pages. The tale begins with an Arab Israeli surgeon, Dr. Amin Jaafari, fighting to save victims of that bombing, only to discover that his beloved wife, Sihem, perpetrated the attack. Angry and confused, Jaafari embarks on an odyssey to discover how his wife could have become a killer, and, more to the point, how he could have missed all of the signs of that transformation.
Jaafari’s quest for answers about his wife’s transformation forces him to face his own willful blindness to the causal relationship between injustice and violence, a blindness that echoes increasingly common attitudes favored by some liberals and social democrats, and members of what used to be called the Arab left. The surgeon’s journey not only illuminates the transformation of one woman into a Palestinian suicide bomber, but also reveals how injustice and oppression continues to transform ordinary people into killers from Iraq to Syria, and throughout many Mideast countries. After capturing Dr. Jaafari, one radical Palestinian explains, “If I locked you up, it was so you could taste hate...Anything can happen if you scratch at someone’s self-esteem, especially if they are feeling powerless.” The reviewer of the “The Attack,” Ms. Janine di Giovanni, claims these words reveal “the complex motivations of a suicide bomber,” and “exemplify the brutal cycle of the Middle East tragedy.”
Giovanni, the author of “The Morning They Came For Us,” asserts that “injustice leads to powerlessness, to frustration, to rage, and finally to acts of violence that undercut any attempts at peace or reconciliation.” Before the September 11th attacks, the rise of the Islamic State, and others of its ilk, these ideas dominated the fields of comparative politics and international relations. Although the age of Trump and the rise of European Right offer no reprieve to the cycle of injustice and violence, hearing Loïc Dauvillier, Ms. Giovanni, and others like them raise their voices against that cycle has proven both refreshing and encouraging.
The second book reviewed, “The Arab of the Future 2,” examines the oppressive atmosphere and injustices fostered by Baathist oppression. The book represents the sequel to author Riad Sattouf’s 2014 “The Arab of the Future,” in which the half-Syrian and half-French cartoonist (who worked for the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the target of a terrorist attack in 2015) tells the story of his childhood spent in Libya under Qaddafi from 1978 to 1984. In the sequel, which begins in 1984, themes of dictatorship continued to shadow Sattouf’s literary journey, as he recounts his life in pre-Arab Spring Baathist Syria.
When his family returns to Syria from France, his father’s support of the Assad regime allows him to act like an “unappetizing bully” bemoaning his lack of “stature and money.” His relatives also act in an equally sleazy fashion, their closeness to the Assad regime revealed not only by their bad behavior, but also by their “better sunglasses, houses and cars.” The insightful observations of the six-year-old Sattouf echo other published accounts exposing Baathist repression in regime policies and practices at all levels. Most of these accounts, whether works of political analysis or literary narratives in novels and prose, began to surface after the Syrian revolution liberated many literary talents from state control.
Sattouf writes about the notorious ideological indoctrination in Baathist Syria under Assad the father, recalling that the games he played with his cousins always involved “killing Jews.” He remembers his inability to comprehend “why people [were] so afraid,” why teachers beat “children with sticks while teaching them patriotic songs” and why they taught those children “never to criticize Hafez Assad or his family?”
The third book reviewed, “Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches From Turkey, Syria, and Iraq,” examines the impact of the Iraq War on various inhabitants of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. The reviewer describes this graphic work of nonfiction by Sarah Glidden , perhaps humorously, as a tale of “war tourism,” where “a two-month voyage is a Middle East 101, a kind of ‘Let’s Go: Middle East for Millennials.’” Glidden ’s humor and vivid watercolors make the struggles and suffering she documents feel more immediate and personal to her readers. The reviewer notes “something fresh in her narrative...Glidden pieces together something that newspaper reporters often miss while trying so hard to analyze. By talking to people and living their lives, she unearths very real people and their real stories.” If this methodology can be considered a category of its own, scores of authors have shared it, publishing similar tales of the impact of war in countries like Syria since 2011. Glidden, however, singles her work out with an insightful and fearless examination of the roles journalism can play in such conflicts and the interactions it fosters with local populations.
To read the the New York Times review, click on the link below:
Saddam Hussein’s Literary Legacy ‘Lost to History’ in Failed Presidential Intelligence Briefing!
Reading the review by James Risen (check the link below) of “Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein,” written by former CIA agent John Nixon, the man who interrogated Hussein, vividly reminded me of the theatrics of that late, unlamented Iraqi president, an “Arab rejectionist” of sorts. The reading resuscitated old lessons in decision-making theories of international relations theories, among others.
Although Nixon’s revelations about the concerns that preoccupied Saddam on the eve of the U.S. 2003 occupation of his country may not surprise some Arabs, they do show the Iraqi leader to be more of a pathetic fool rather than the menacing leader of an “Axis of Evil” state.
According to Risen, Nixon’s “most astonishing discovery was that by the time of the United States-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Hussein had turned over the day-to-day running of the Iraqi government to his aides and was spending most of his time writing a novel. Hussein described himself to Mr. Nixon as both president of Iraq and a writer, and complained to Mr. Nixon that the United States military had taken away his writing materials, preventing him from finishing his book.”
Although some Arab press reports had long ridiculed Saddam’s writing skills as well as those of his ghost writers, Nixon’s took less issue with the authenticity of Saddam’s literary skills than with the marked preference for fiction demonstrated by those in George W. Bush’s administration who conveniently “bought” intelligence reports portraying Saddam as a formidable opponent bent “on a mission to blow up the world,” a claim used to justify the subsequent invasion.
Given the almost unhinged character of Saddam Hussein, and the many lessons learned by the intelligence community from past wars and disastrous foreign adventures, one wonders why they failed to put any of those lessons to good use on the eve of the country’s entry into a major war, one whose costs subsequently proved to be immense.
(Saddam Hussein photo credit: The Associated Press)
To read the New York Times review, click on the link below:
Museum Hopes To Unravel Arafat Enigmas
Despite being the embodiment of the Palestinian national cause, Yasir Arafat remains a mystery, even after his death. His supporters knew Arafat as a revolutionary war hero, while his foes named him an “archterrorist,” with both titles derived from his quest for Palestinian liberation. However, the opening of the Yasir Arafat Museum this November 11, 2016 — the anniversary of his 2004 death from ‘unknown causes’ in a French military hospital— might gather together some loose ends and reveal significant details of the man’s life. By assembling and presenting historical background and personal belongings in, according to Nasser al-Kidwa, the chairman of the Yasir Arafat Foundation, “as accurate a way as possible, without exaggeration or understatement” (as cited in the New York Times article), perhaps an accurate image of Arafat's life can be created. Funded with $7 million from the Palestinian Authority government, the museum offers a collection of difficult-to-obtain paraphernalia, including Arafat’s photographs, notebook, gun and even his Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with the late Yitzhak Rabin in 1994 (the prize was recently returned after being looted in the Hamas seizure of Gaza in 2007).
As Arafat’s true birthplace and cause of death remain a mystery, the museum hopes to answer long overdue questions. The museum narrative designates his grandfather’s home in the Old City of Jerusalem, overlooking the Aqsa Mosque, an area demolished during the 1967 war, as the site of Arafat’s birth on August 4, 1929. That same narrative also attributes Arafat’s cause of death to poison, and implies that Israel had a hand in its administration, something to be “proven” by medical reports from Israeli officials. However, while claiming to be accurate, some of the museum’s credibility may come into question, as the existence of those documents contradicts the accusation of Israeli involvement.
Despite this, the museum will serve as a “cultural, [and] educational, as well as commemorative institution,” according to al-Kidwa, providing information on Arafat’s role throughout the history of the movement starting from the rise of Palestinian nationalism in the early 20th century and following the path of struggle up until his death. Violent acts by Palestinian groups, however, receive neither praise nor denunciation.
Information on Arafat’s family, though sparse, also can be found throughout the museum exhibits, revealing, among other details, his mother’s death when he was four. Still, not much can be said about his elusive wife, Suha Arafat, 34 years his junior, despite the numerous photographs of their daughter Zahwa. Shedding light on details about Yasir Arafat that many might not know, the museum hopes to unravel the enigma surrounding the man, though questions will still remain. To read the full New York Times article, click on the link below:
In photo: Visitors to the Yasir Arafat Museum in the West Bank stood outside the Palestinian leader’s tomb Wednesday, a day before the museum’s public opening, photographed by Abbas Momani
In French or Arabic? Abdelfattah Kilito Faces a Dilemma In Identity
In countries where many lingual traditions intersect, identifying audiences becomes especially important. Many Maghrebi writers from countries in North Africa have experienced immersion in Arabic and foreign colonial languages most of their lives, a condition that creates conflict when it comes to writing. Abdelfattah Kilito, an award-winning Moroccan author, addresses the conflict of language in his book, “The Tongue of Adam,” translated to English from French by Robyn Creswell, and scheduled for release this November by New Directions. Tracing his own experiences with writing in an excerpt of the book for the November 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Kilito explains that many Maghrebi writers choose to write in French. Having taught French literature for 40 years, he struggled to choose between Arab or French audiences. However, he found himself questioning why the French would want him writing about their literature, and ultimately chose to write for Arab audiences. “I’ve always obscurely felt that I could add something to Arabic literature…You might even say that I learned French, paradoxically, so that I could write in Arabic,” he stated in the article entitled “Le Mot Injuste.” With his decision to write for Arab readers, Kilito soon attempted publishing Arabic works. He wrote the second book following “The Author and His Doubles” (Syracuse University Press, 2001) in Arabic rather than French, and subsequently received the brush off when a scholar he asked to review the book ultimately rejected the task because it was not written in French. Similarly, a prominent translator described Arabic to Kilito as a “work language,” more difficult and therefore less preferable to read. This disheartening news, however, inspired Kilito to rewrite his books in Arabic as a patriotic commitment, a statement of solidarity with a language he felt had come “under attack.” Over the years, he has continued to receive criticism for this choice, but has grown to accept and stand strong for his Arabic writings.
Born in 1945, Abdelfattah Kilito has won several awards, including the Great Moroccan Award, the French Academy Award, and the Sultan Al Owais Prize for Criticism and Literature Studies. He has refused the titles of author and critic, instead preferring to be called an analyst or “good reader” of texts. After earning his doctorate from the University of Paris III: Sorbonne Nouvelle in 1982, he began teaching in the College of Letters in Mohammed V University at Agdal, Rabat. With a slew of Arabic and French books (“The Arabs and the Art of Storytelling: A Strange Familiarity,” “The Clash of Images,” “Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language,” “The Author and His Doubles” and the upcoming translation of his work, “The Tongue of Adam”), many of his books have been translated into English, German, Spanish and Italian. Translator and critic Robyn Creswell has described Kilito’s writing style as “elegant, lucid, and erudite,” for the Aesop website. To read Kilito’s full article in Harper, click the link below:
(On the right, Professor Abdelfattah Kilito from hebdo ahram)
New Novel Portrays Refugee Calamity as “Mideast Horror Story”
“More,” written by rising Turkish writer Hakan Gunday, winner of the French Prix Médicis Étranger Award, follows the morbid and gradual metamorphosis of a young, innocent boy into a “nihilistic beast,” as described by Michiko Kakutani in her New York Times review of the novel. In this coming of age story, Gunday introduces nine-year-old Gaza, a character who works with his father, a human trafficker and murderer, as they torment refugees and migrants trying to escape from their war-ridden countries. Grisly and gory, Gaza’s initially childlike view on the world becomes increasingly cynical as he mocks the hopes of the refugees and renounces the existence of both heaven and hell. He and his father violently abuse the refugees with detached amusement, deliberately staging horrendous travelling conditions in order to provoke gladiatorial fights between desperate passengers. Even as a child, Gaza had a dark history, accidentally killing a person — Cuma, the only person who had shown him kindness — when he neglected to turn on the truck’s air conditioning, suffocating him. As time passes, Gaza transforms into a monster, entranced by murder and cruelty. While “More” constitutes a fictional novel, and Gaza’s story seems almost too horrifying to be real, refugees and migrants regularly face real starvation, theft and exploitation in their quest for freedom and safety. Kakutani writes, “The United Nations estimates that 65.3 million people were displaced from their homes by conflict and persecution at the end of 2015,” a grim reminder that many of these people face the same nightmares introduced in the novel. Eye-opening and jaw-dropping, Hakan Gunday’s “More” reveals a terrifying vision of man’s capacity for evil. (For Ms. Michiko Kakutani’s review, click on the link below).
(Photo of Hakan Gunday is from Hurriyet Daily News)
Syrian Refugee Drama Troupe Seeks to Heal Traumas
It is no accident that the "Love Boat" theatrical sea journey ends in Shakespeare's "King Lear," as more and more Syrians die either under assault from Assad and Russian bombs or by drowning, desperately taking to the seas in hopes of escaping genocidal policies.
Unrelated to an American TV series under the same name, “Love Boat,” directed by Nawar Bulbul and performed last April in Amman, weaves together a charming fictional story about members of a theatre troupe who have fled Syria in the midst of war and reunited in the Mediterranean. The characters in the story band together to perform a new play in each of the countries they cross as they inch towards Germany seeking refuge. The adaptations range from “The Knights” by Aristophanes to “Don Quixote” by Cervantes, and “King Lear” by Shakespeare. These amateur actors — like the characters they portray — have become refugees. Bulbul uses a combination of singing, dancing, and comedy to reveal the inner strength of Syrian refugees who have suffered imprisonment, violence, and major loss. Through each of the different plays, he masterfully integrates political themes, and comments on human conditions through the characters’ narratives. One example can be found in a scene in “The Knights” which proves symbolic of the Syrian revolution and Assad.
Nawar Bulbul, formerly a famous Syrian actor himself, starred in the drama Bab al-Hara. He fled after publicizing his opposition to Bashar al-Assad in a protest. After being forced to leave both Syria and France with his wife, he ultimately settled in Amman where he began to recruit the other cast members of his play. Bulbul had previously directed adaptations of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and “Romeo and Juliet.” In his “Love Boat,” Bulbul gathered other Syrian refugees who had fled after 2011 due to political unrest and violence. He met Eman al-Shayab in a non-profit organization which aided refugee children suffering from physical trauma. In one moving scene of the play, al-Shayab throws her prosthetic leg at the enemy plane which had dropped the bomb that took her real leg and watches, in her imagination, as it strikes the plane and causes it to crash. Al-Shayab, who chose to convey her story through humor, says the play allowed her to “do something good for my country by showing our courage,” according to an article by Bart Pitchford published by American Theatre magazine in the May/June 2016 issue. To heal traumas caused by their past experiences, Bulbul brings together a work of art where Syrian refugees not only prove their resilience, but also can tell their stories however they wish — not to evoke pity, but to prove their survival.
Although Syrians need miraculous assistance, theater can still promise them something of value. According to Pitchford, in an article by Elizabeth Hlavinka of The Daily Texan: “It allows [people] to picture a different future or world than the one they currently have. When you’re able to bring [that] to life on stage, it really allows you to reform and reshape what your world is.” Pitchford adds that theater not only helps refugees tell their stories, but also makes it possible for the world "to hear their stories."
In photos: (Left) Eman al-Shayabi, Moustafa Murad, Mahmoud Saddiqa, and Mohammed Kabbour in “Love Boat” in Amman, Jordan. (Right) Eman Al-Shayab holds her prosthetic leg in rehearsal for "Love Boat." Photos by Bart Pitchford.
Life Imitates Architecture in Homs: Can Architecture Instigate Sectarian Strife?
Among the many theories surrounding the cause of Syria’s conflict, a sort of new theory has emerged. Could architecture have played a substantial role in its occurrence? Marwa al-Sabouni, a young architect based in Homs, argues yes. Having lived in Homs for two years and witnessed its destruction, Sabouni presents this provocative theory in her recent book, “The Battle for Home: The Vision of a Young Architect in Syria” (Thames & Hudson, 2016). Although some may criticize her for advancing a theory which attributes the war to urban architecture as opposed to the regime’s decades-old dictatorship, Sabouni clarifies that she does not claim “that architecture is the only reason for war, but in a very real way it accelerated and perpetuated the conflict,” according to Stephen Heyman’s article in the New York Times.
Reporting detailed design flaws in infrastructure in modern architecture, Sabouni, 34, analyzes the negative impacts of modernism on a once peaceful and serene city. Classical Homs and its traditional architecture, she describes, created an environment where many groups could coexist, regardless of sect. Churches and mosques stood side-by-side, and the souk forced rival groups to interact while participating in the market. However, the turn towards urbanized architecture fostered space for rising tensions as buildings grew disconnected from one another. In the past, winding alleyways linked squat houses together, casting a comfortable shade across the city and building the sense of a knitted community. Under the guise of “progress,” the government modernized classical cities and, unfortunately, not only isolated the occupants from the heart of the city, but also from each other through these new, enormous apartment blocks and shantytowns.
Though the architectural changes to ancient sites throughout Syria have been on the receiving end of criticism from world heritage preservation groups, Sabouni argues that isn’t the point. “Why… is a ‘scratch on a column’ at Palmyra more scandalous than the wholesale destruction of Syria’s urban architecture?” she asked in Heyman’s article. Her long-time mentor, Roger Scruton, a conservative English philosopher, shared her view in the same article, stating, “I have always felt sympathy for the underlying view that modernist architecture is a catastrophe for the Middle East.” Credited for helping found The Salisbury Review, a conservative political journal, Scruton serves as a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center based in Washington, D.C.
With new plans for rebuilding cities destroyed by the war, the government has set its eye on even taller, more disconnected apartment towers. Sabouni, on the other hand, wishes to echo the traditional designs of Old Homs, especially the “Sibat,” or covered alleyways, to recreate the interconnectedness. However, while she urges the return of classical architecture, she also warns against wishing to return to pre-war conditions. “Why not wish for better, why settle for the state of instability that brought us here in the first place?” she asks in Heyman’s article. “This gives me the feeling that we haven’t learned any lessons from all that has happened.” Ms. Marwa al-Sabouni is the co-owner of Arabic Gate for Architectural News, the first and only online media dedicated to Arabic architectural news and was the winner of the Kuwaiti Royal Award for Best Media Project in the Arab World in 2010.
More about Ms. al-Sabouni’s book can be found in Stephen Heyman’s New York Times review, “Trapped in Homs, Architect Imagines a New Future for Syrian Cities.” The link is pasted below:
(Artwork: A sketch by Marwa al-Sabouni depicting Old Homs in Syria. Her book, “The Battle for Home,” is illustrated with drawings of Homs before and after the war. The New York Times.)
'Torture, Imprisonment, and Political Assassination in the Arab Novel'
"Arabic literature is perhaps one of very few literary traditions that have a distinct literary genre known as the "prison novel." This is not only because a great majority of writers have themselves lived the experience of arrest, imprisonment, and even torture, but also because the history of the contemporary Arab intellectual is one of constant struggle with the authorities. The colonial authorities and their local cronies were succeeded after independence by national authorities who in many regions of the Arab world have surpassed their predecessors in the various methods of tyranny and oppression...The attitude towards the subject of freedom in the Syrian novel changed with the generation of novelists that followed. Noteworthy is the evolution that the works of two important Syrian novelists, Khayri al-Dhahabi and Nabil Suleyman, produced as each addressed the issues of freedom, prison, and political oppression in his own way. Both link these issues with the social and political history of Syria and with the many cultural changes that took place over half a century through the fight for independence and the contradictory tribulations following independence." (From Sabry Hafez's "Torture, Imprisonment, and Political Assassination in the Arab Novel," which appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 8, No. 38, Winter 2002). To read the full article, click on the link below:
Photograph from World Without Torture blog, courtesy of kIM DARam.
Refugee Art Exhibit Rekindles Best, Worst in Austrian Town
For decades, Nickelsdorf, Austria has had refugees coming in and out of the town, and for the most part, the locals had welcomed them. However, a recent exhibit in the town’s annual Konfrontationen Festival has caused unease among the inhabitants. A simple white truck, which was discovered August last year, has reached millions across Europe with a grim reminder of the dangerous trials Middle Eastern refugees must face on their journeys. Abandoned on the shoulder of a road near Parndorf, Austrian police discovered 71 decomposing bodies, including several children. Authorities state that they had been left there for several days.
The Konfrontationen Festival, traditionally hosted by café owner Hans Falb, showcases experimental art and music each summer. This past July, it brought 500 visitors to Nickelsdorf. But while the town expects numbers to vary each year, this year the town of 1,700 reacted with discomfort and even complaints. From the Cold War through the Balkan Wars, refugees going through the town were a common sight, but this has changed with the influx of asylum seekers across Europe. Gerhard Zapfl, the town’s mayor, explained the difference between the East Germans arriving before and the Middle Eastern refugees coming now. The former had no intentions of staying; they simply passed on through. And this difference has caused wariness among the locals.
Arnold Haberl and Christine Schörkuber’s exhibit featured a video installation of a man cleaning the white truck and hanging the clothes of the dead to dry. Though the footage has evoked sympathy from the town inhabitants, many are still wary. Another of Ms. Schörkuber’s works, a group of colorful tents inspired by a refugee camp in Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian border, had caused her to be evicted from her building, where the tents had been housed. Mr. Falb, the cafe owner, cited in a New York Times article, “They don’t like the Arabs; they don’t like them coming here. They’d rather read in the newspapers about 2,000 to 3,000 people drowning in the Mediterranean.”
Siding with the refugees, Falb defiantly embraced the controversial art exhibits and placed the tents in front of his jazz café. Being a border zone with close proximity to the former Soviet bloc, Nickelsdorf has been isolated for decades, and he wants to change this by giving locals exposure to outside things. Others, like him, aren’t uneasy about the incoming refugees either. Marianne Falb, (not related to the café owner) has made great efforts in helping refugees adjust to new lives and learn German, becoming an adoptive mother to many asylum seekers. Despite their hopefulness, however, fear remains. Mr. Falb worries that strengthening border control in response to refugees will bring Cold War-era isolation back to Nickelsdorf.
More about the story can be found in the New York Times article.
Photo credit: (The border zone in Nickelsdorf, Austria, where asylum seekers took shelter last year. Akos Stiller for The New York Times)
Fatima’s Tale: Fighting for Identity, Respect, and Place as an Algerian Immigrant
In a predominantly patriarchal society, living as an independent woman proves difficult. But for the title character of the award winning film “Fatima” (2015), directed by Philippe Faucon and recently awarded the César Award for Best Picture — the struggle becomes even greater. Fatima, an Algerian Muslim immigrant divorcee living in Lyon, France with two young adult daughters, works an arduous housecleaning job to support her family. Her ex-husband, whose name the author never reveals aside from referring to him as ‘Dad,’ described as more modernized in contrast to the traditional Fatima, remains on good terms with the family.
However, while Fatima does follow traditional ways of thinking, she faces her own share of rebellion and desire to deviate from the norm. Being subjected to the expectations of others, she experiences anxiety, and makes it a point to resist those expectations, especially the presumption that, as a single mother without a male in her life, she will prove unfit and incapable of surviving on her own. Fatima certainly finds raising her two daughters more difficult than she imagined, as their individual values and beliefs divide the small family. Having grown up in a North African Muslim community and culture, Fatima adheres to more traditional beliefs about the expected behaviors for women. Her daughters, 18-year-old Nesrine, and 15-year-old Souad, appear the opposite in many ways. Raised mostly in France, they have assimilated into French culture and society; when she accidentally ignores a Moroccan neighbor’s greeting while absorbed in her studies, the rest of the community dubs Nesrine, a medical student, rude and “stuck-up.” Brattier Souad rejects her mother’s ways, donning revealing clothing, keeping questionable company, and constantly shaming her mother for working in a factory, and as a housecleaner. In the eyes of the community, her daughters’ behaviors reflect Fatima’s bad parenting.
Despite this constant negative scrutiny, Fatima continues working, determined to break away from the expectations of her failure as a single mother, and a poor immigrant — but not without difficulty. This goal proves not to be without its difficulties, as Fatima works as a house cleaner for mainly wealthy clients, some of whom belittle and demean her, in one case testing her honesty by leaving money in dirty laundry. After injuring herself on the job, the pressure seems almost too much to bear, leading her to fall back on rebuilding her identity. Keeping touch with her native tongue, Arabic, the beleaguered woman writes in a journal. With direct quotations from Fatima Elayoubi’s autobiographical “Prayer to the Moon” —the inspiration for “Fatima,” the film presents the quintessential immigrant story, rich in details of culture and identity, revealing the anxieties people face in their own communities. Born in Morocco, Director Philippe Faucon, much like the film’s Fatima, spent his youth raised between Morocco and Algeria, later immigrating to France. Along with this film, he has directed “The Disintegration” (2011), “Samia” (2000), and “Sabine” (1993), among others. The film debuted on Friday, August 26 in New York, according to the New York Times.
In photo: Fatima with her oldest daughter Nesrine, courtesy of Cannes Film Festival.
What Does it Take to Set a Life on Fire?
When the September 16th issue of the New Yorker arrived in 2013, I started flipping the pages until I saw "By Fire," a work of fiction by Tahar Ben Jelloun, a noted Moroccan author. While I must admit that I am not an avid fiction reader, I became transfixed by its main character, Mohamed, as I started reading the short story. In addition to day-to-day misfortunes, and harassment by the police, among other injustices at the hands of the state, Mohamed struggles to support his family and care for his sick mother. The more I read, the more I sympathized with Mohamed, seeing him as a true hero. However, by the middle of the story, this main character became more and more familiar to me, someone I had perhaps known, or read about in the past. Reading to the end, without much guessing, I assumed the character to be modeled on Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire on 17 December 2010 in protest of the harassments and humiliation he experienced at the hands of the police. Who could forget such a monumental death, the act of protest that sparked the Arab Spring. My conclusion remains an educated guess, for Ben Jelloun never reveals the inspiration for his short story. I was also taken by the author’s prose, narration, and structure, which made the short story far more effective than any manifesto I have read. The aforementioned constituted my reactions to the New Yorker’s fiction story in 2013.
Now,“Par le feu,” previously published in French in 2011 (Gallimard), has been translated and published in English as “By Fire” (Northwestern University Press, 2016). The novella offers a fictionalized account of the struggles of Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, who committed suicide by setting himself on fire in response to the confiscation of his food cart by the police. The novella recreates Bouazizi’s character in the 30-year-old Mohamed, who bears the same name. Ben Jelloun delves into the details of this Mohamed’s life that not only give insight into his personal, but also his emotional struggles as he tries to make a living for his family. “By Fire” strings together the events that ultimately lead to his suicide, from his inheritance of the fruit cart after his father’s death, to the moment police officers seize it, claiming he has no work permit and doesn’t pay taxes. According to Valerie Wieland of New Pages, who recently reviewed the novella, “It was difficult to think of Ben Jelloun’s story as fiction.”
Overcoming Obstacles: Mainstreaming Arab-American Literature
Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Arab-American writers have witnessed many changes, enjoying increased popularity, especially for poetry and prose. In the wake of these terrorist attacks, with the growing interest in the Arab and Muslim world, a world whose visibility continued to increase following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Arab-American authors began to fill publishers’ shelves with their works. Six years ago, Andrea Shalal-Esa noted these changes in her essay, “Clearing a Path for Mainstream Arab-American Literature,” where she tracked the growing presence of Arab-American literature in the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. occupation of Iraq. She cites Michael Norris, of Simba Information, whose data revealed an increase from 793 nonfiction and fiction books published in 1997 to 1,304 in 2004, illustrating how the numbers nearly doubled within seven years.
However, this increased publication of Arab-American literature started to level out, a development attributed to classifying major works as Third World literature, postcolonial literature, and emergent literature, classifications that can be seen to have weaker publishing records, an unfortunate truth which Fedwa Malti-Douglas — as cited by Ms. Shalal-Esa — considers a “grave injustice.” Only a few, such as Naguib Mahfouz, have enjoyed consistent publication, and, in Mahfouz’s case, this can be attributed to the Nobel Prize for Literature awarded to him in 1988.
While as a group, Arab-American writers during the 1940–1980 period remained rare, Shalal-Esa singles out several authors who created prominent roles for themselves during this time: D.H. Melhem and Etel Adnan, respectively, as well as poet Naomi Shihab Nye, and novelist Diana Abu Jaber, who also emerged after the 80s. Indeed, the late 20th and early 21st centuries brought with them more fiction, poetry and other works worthy of literary criticism by Arab-American writers.
Despite the wide recognition Arab-American literature earned, obstacles still remain. Shalal-Esa notes the “consolidation of the publishing industry and the attendant focus on profitability, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism, and the increasing conglomeratizing of bookstores” as some of the main factors limiting new literature from being published. These factors, and others, represent the obstacles which delay the full integration of Arab-American literature into the main U.S. cultural criticism.
Arab-American authors and cultural organizations have been engaged in their respective fields and utilizing their full resources to combat all types of obstacles and challenges. The late Edward Said proved an exception, breaking through all the barriers, and emerging as a preeminent cultural "star" on the global and American stage. According to Said, the developing Arab-American role in the United States has been trapped in a “gestation stage.” On the other hand, six years ago, Shalal-Esa adopted quite an optimistic take on the status of the Arab-American literature, claiming it had finally escaped this stage.
To read the full article of Ms. Andrea Shalal-Esa’s “Clearing a Path for Mainstream Arab-American Literature,” click on the link below:
ALBERT COSSERY, 1913-2008: MOCKERY AS RESISTANCE
...‘he always maintained that he never lost his Egyptian identity (though there was one 35-year period during which he did not visit Egypt),’ adding ‘that he still thought in Arabic…’
“The novels of Albert Cossery are refreshingly scathing in their criticism of vanity, political corruption, and poverty of thought and imagination. They are also a tribute to the power of humor to free people from the vapid absurdities of modern existence. Judging by the reaction to his passing last year, one may deduce with resignation the scandalous underexposure of Cossery’s work. He does not tower over Arab literature like Naguib Mahfouz, or over Arab-francophone literature like Albert Camus, but one should not misread his lesser position as an indication of any artistic shortcomings. Of Cossery, it might be more accurate to say that he towered underneath these literary giants. He wrote, like Jean Genet, of the underground; his stories take place among the prostitutes, drug addicts and criminals at the bottom of society….Cossery thrived in the intellectual climate of Paris, of which Saint-Germain was then the epicenter; he knew Sartre, Camus, Durrell, Henry Miller, Giacometti, Tzara, Vian and Genet, amongst others. He was not as productive a writer as his colleagues were, delivering on average only one slim novel for every decade of his life (“only imbeciles write every day” he once said in a French television interview), but each book is carefully crafted in a French that is at once masterful, concise and trenchant in its humor....Of all of his friends, it was perhaps Henry Miller who was most taken with Cossery’s novels. Miller endeavored to introduce his work to an American audience, writing the introduction to the English translation of Cossery’s 1940 “Men God Forgot.”... Miller writes: “No living writer that I know of describes more poignantly and implacably the lives of the vast submerged multitude of mankind …Each of Cossery’s eight novels depicts the neglected rabble of Egyptian cities and the corrupt state power structure that painfully complicates their already difficult lives... All of Cossery’s novels are in some way vehicles for this philosophy, a philosophy that is portrayed as being ontologically at odds with authority, whether it is the authority of the state or the supposed authority of the ego and its hallucinatory self-regard….Though Cossery lived the majority of his life and wrote the majority of his novels in Paris, he always maintained that he never lost his Egyptian identity (though there was one 35-year period during which he did not visit Egypt), that he still thought in Arabic, and that the characters in his stories were always based on vivid memories of people with whom he had associated during his youth in Cairo….The importance of mockery and laughter in his work is paramount; it breathes new life into the idea of resistance, and practically ensures that his stature will increase in both the Arab and French literary worlds as he is discovered by new generations of violence-weary readers.” (From Michael Teague’s “Albert Cossery, 1913-2008: Mockery as Resistance,” published in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 15, No. 61, 2009). To read the full article, click on the link below:
Artwork: Albert Cossery by Mamoun Sakkal for Al Jadid
The Mystery of Ashraf Marwan: Murder or Accident? Traitor or Hero?
Despite having gone unnoticed by Egypt’s presidents as a spy, Ashraf Marwan’s death in June 2007 caught the attention of many others. After a five-story fall from his apartment balcony into a garden near Piccadilly Circus in London, where authorities initially wrote Marwan’s death off as a suicide. However, some believe that Marwan was murdered. The motive? Perhaps an act of revenge against the Egyptian billionaire’s betrayal of his country, or a deliberate push by hit men hired to dispose of a spy. The truth remains hidden.
For almost three decades, using the code-name “the Angel,” Marwan served as a spy for Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. Uri Bar-Joseph’s “The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel” (HarperCollins) delves into Marwan’s background. An aide to Egyptian presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, Marwan also married Nasser’s daughter, Mona, making him the president’s son-in-law. These two factors gave “the Angel” access to extremely valuable information, even national secrets — information that would end up in the hands of the then Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir. Marwan provided detailed Egyptian war plans and accounts of Soviet transactions for weapons. When President Sadat decided to wage war against Israel, Marwan’s intelligence prevented an Israeli defeat. Initially, Israel’s Defense Force doubted his information, which resulted in Israel being taken by surprise at Yom Kippur. However, Marwan’s last-minute warning ultimately allowed Israel to mobilize its troops a mere six hours before Egypt’s planned attack.
While some accuse Marwan of being a double agent, claiming the spy delivered misinformation about the surprise attack, and thus aided Egypt, Bar-Joseph devotes a lengthy section in his book to debunking this argument. He exposes Eli Zeira, Israel’s then director of military intelligence, and a man known to be skeptical of Marwan, as the main reason why Israel did not act sooner.
In a futile attempt to bury the country’s national embarrassment, Egypt lauded Marwan as a national hero after his death, despite his being well-known as a traitor, according to Mark Mazzetti who reviewed The Angel”for the New York Times Sunday Book Review. However, the mystery surrounding Marwan’s death still remains. The link to the Times review is below:
Ashraf Marwan(Photograph credit: From the New York Times, Maher Attar/Sygma via Getty Images )
No West Without East: Robert Kaplan’s ‘How Islam Created Europe’
In the past, Islam acted as the driving force behind the creation of Europe, drawing a line of distinction between the West and the East. Since antiquity, Europe had been defined as the land whose Southern most shores met the Mediterranean. However, as the growing influence of Islam swept over North Africa, there formed a border which distinguished one side from another — the “Middle Sea,” which divided the two civilizations, Christian and Muslim, from each other. Now, ironically, we see Islam trying to undo the work of thousands of years, perhaps altering geography with the sudden rise of migration and terrorism in the West, according to Robert Kaplan in his article, “How Islam Created Europe” published in the Atlantic.
Historically, Islam defined Europe by serving as an image to contrast with it. Kaplan claims the West considered Christendom the direct opposite of Islam, an attitude most exemplified by the Crusade period (1095 – 1291). The late scholar Edward Said further built upon this idea in his book “Orientalism,” published in 1978, which established that Europe developed its identity based upon a sense of superiority over the Muslim and Arab world. Fueled by the image of the Middle East as fascinating but inferior, the concept of European imperialism grew and flourished for centuries.
Today, the borders which distinguished the East and West are fading away. The European countries’ spheres of influence, developed in the Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916, no longer stand as valid and, for the most part, remain ignored. Migrant Muslims, bearing no desire to become Christian, now crowd into European countries, redefining Europe’s identity, and sending economically stagnant European nations reeling in alarm. The increasing presence of terrorism and refugees has drastically altered Europe’s cultural identity.
Kaplan maintains this to be an inevitable change, with embracing the new cultural identity as the only viable solution. In the past, a ruling empire, such as the Roman Empire, typically solved such cultural dilemmas through a variety of violent and nonviolent means, but most of these no longer work in today’s complex world. Kaplan asserts the impossibility of regressing back to the times and tactics of old, when empires heavily reinforced the borders separating the East and West. Neither can there be a “clash of cultures,” as the modern era has changed the world focus to maintaining and furthering human interactions. Instead, European nations must develop and implement new approaches to the issues of migration and terrorism, approaches that incorporate the world of Islam without compromising Europe’s democratic systems, human rights, and the rule of law.
Kaplan rejects the concept of an ‘end of history’ (Francis Fukuyama’s idea) in this midst of cultural change, labeling such an idea a “fantasy.” Rather, he suggests something more grim altogether: if Europe does indeed regress to times of nationalism, this could mark the end of “the West” as a whole cultural entity in Europe. Cultural purity within a modernized and extremely multi-cultural world constitutes impossibility. The issue at large remains how to create a new solution for the geographically redefined and culturally-enhanced Europe.
Check the link below for the Atlantic article:
Transforming the Arab World One Woman at a Time
Katherine Zoepf explores the daily lives of women in the Arab world in her recent book, “Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World” (Penguin Press). As a freelance journalist and frequent contributor to the New York Times, Zoepf has spent over a decade living and traveling through the Arab world. Her book, inspired by criticism from a young Syrian woman regarding an article on the hijab, studies the lifestyles of women living in the Arab world, ranging from flight attendants to activists, covering a range of women protected by their families to those wanted dead by them. Not rebels, but ordinary people, these women nonetheless find themselves “transforming” the Arab world.
Zoepf particularly emphasizes their many acts of feminism, whether large-scale or obscure. She also delves into gender-based social issues like honor crimes, the right to drive cars, workplace dynamics (especially in Saudi Arabia), and Egyptian “virginity tests.” Zoepf interviews women who participated in the Arab Spring, as well as discussing the most intimate and “secret” sexual behavior of what she labels “Lebanese party girls.” The author shows how many young daughters transform the Arab world through sometimes small gestures such as making different decisions than their mothers. Still, some of the discussion about the hijab border on superficiality, such as when she cites a Syrian woman describing the hijab as being “meant to obscure a woman’s sexuality, not her individuality” and quotes a “female teacher” explaining that “if a man saw her unveiled" he would be aroused and abuse "a child." This woman then asks the author if she wouldn’t feel at fault if “this child was raped?" This aside, the book makes a valuable contribution by turning its attention to ordinary Arab women while avoiding famous and activist elites who tend to enjoy the spotlight.
To read more about “Excellent Daughters” check the links below:
Casual Violence’ and Heartbreaking Palestinian Stories
Entering the world of nonfiction after two novels — “The Suitors: A Novel” (Counterpoint Press) and “Ether” (City Lights Books) — Ben Ehrenreich records heart-wrenching scenes of resistance in the face of oppression in his “The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine” (Penguin Press). Based on reportage covering the years from 2011-2014, when Ehrenreich travelled to and lived in the West Bank, the book reveals its author, like most writers on the Middle East, to be conscientious concerning the sharp division of the two sides — pro-Palestine and pro-Israel. Still, though Ben Rawlence’s review for The New York Times Sunday Book Review describes Ehrenreich’s stories as “both heart-breaking and eye opening,” the reviewer also correctly suggests the writer “just let the stories do the talking.”
Chronicling violence in a domestic context rather than that seen in battlefields, Ehrenreich reveals the everyday struggles of Palestinian life through the eyes of families from both large cities and small villages, focusing on three locations in particular: the small village of Nabi Saleh, the city of Hebron, and the village of Umm al-Kheir. He witnesses firsthand the heavy discrimination and “casual violence” against Palestinians in the West Bank, where he partakes in demonstrations and gets tear-gassed several times himself.
The book begins in Nabi Saleh with BassemTamimi, a resident of the village, who describes his fellow villagers’ struggles to reopen the path to a spring that constitutes their main water source. Tamimi explains that every Friday, Israeli soldiers beat the protesting villagers back with tear gas, rubber-coated bullets, and stun grenades. In Hebron, Ehrenreich meets Hani Amer, who speaks about Jewish and Palestinian resentments as he relays his experiences living in one of the walled off villages created by the separation wall near Bethelehem. The conversation sheds light on the several segregated zones and dismal living conditions. The book ends with the village of Umm al-Kheir and other nearby areas where Israelis have been expanding their settlements and driving Palestinians off their land. While the different interviews tell tragic stories painful to hear, Rawlence eloquently sums the things up, describing them as “the heart of the book: the stories people tell themselves to survive.”
Ehrenreich has written for Harper’s and The New York Times Magazine’s cover story “Is This Where the Third Intifada Will Start?” which serves as the inspiration for his book. Check the link below for The New York Times Sunday Book Review:
'Holy War’ of Words: French Intellectuals’Debate on Radical Islam Gets… Radical
Call me naïve, but I am astonished to discover two prominent French scholars of radical Islam, whose books I recall well from my comparative politics classes, engaging in debates of sorts—read exchanging insults! I am referring to Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel. The two men have hurled insults at each other for months in a peculiarly personal, high stakes quarrel that has reverberated through French media and society. According to a New York Times article on July 12, 2016, Roy and Kepel have called each other, among other things, “madman,” “thug,” “illiterate,” “paranoid,” “ass,” and “not a thinker.” Although their advocacy of two different perspectives on the role of Islam in radicalizing French Muslims places their explanations within the mainstream of academic discourse, the reasons why the two professors – once friends – parted ways prove even more disorienting. While the Times article examines in detail the difference between Roy and Giles, this excerpt sums up the controversy’s importance, describing their positions as presenting “clashing analyses of the origins, development and future of jihadism [which] have broken out of academic circles to present an important question for France and for all of Europe: Which man holds the key to understanding the phenomenon?” To read the full article, click on the link below:
A Son’s Search of Qaddafi’s Dungeons for Father and Relatives Ends in Death and Humiliation
In the captivating memoir, “The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between,” Hisham Matar tells the story of his family’s suffering under Muammar Qaddafi’s rise to power in 1969. In 1979, Matar moved with his brother and mother to Cairo. Matar’s father, Jaballa, a well-known Libyan dissident and officer in the Libyan army, followed shortly after. Later, in 1990, while Matar studied in London, his father was kidnapped from their Cairo apartment and eventually sent to Abu Salim Prison, where he and some of Matar’s other relatives remained for many years.
In the memoir, Matar connects his father’s absence to the story of Odysseus, whose trials and journeys forced his son Telemachus to maintain the family estate and protect his mother without knowing whether his father lived or died. Matar’s family continued for three years without a word from Jaballa before he managed to smuggle out a few, far-between letters detailing the horrors of the small, concrete cells lacking in oxygen. Later, they received a cassette in which Jaballa wept as he described his suffering.
In 2009, Matar organized negotiations with Qaddafi’s son, Seif, to free his father and other family members from the prison under the condition that they sign a formal apology to the dictator. Jaballa, however, seemed unreachable. Although revolutionaries liberated Abu Salim Prison just shortly after Matar's relatives signed the letter in 2011, it took ten years of silence and helplessness before Matar could conclude with any certainty that his father had been killed in the 1996 Abu Salim Massacre, where 1,270 prisoners were shot and killed. Matar’s account of his family’s helplessness, and longing for a reunion, bears witness to the trials of exile, grief and loss.
From Innocent to Outcast to Jihadist: The Tragic Odyssey of ‘Infidels’
Moroccan writer and filmmaker Abdellah Taïa’s recent novel “Infidels,” translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer, tells the life story of Jallal, the gay son of a Moroccan mother. The narrative, told from alternating points of view, shifting from grandmother to mother, and then to Jallal himself, details the teenaged boy’s life as an “outsider.” Jallal’s mother, Slima, has what Jallal considers to be a “tainted” reputation, and at an early age he constantly witnessed the hypocrisy involved in her business as a prostitute. He would watch the men who come to her for pleasure praise her, and then shame and degrade her after they had their turn. Jallal falls into prostitution as well after being raped by his mother’s customers. Shunned by their neighbors, the duo struggle as outcasts in their Moroccan neighborhood before being torn apart as the secret police capture Slima and hold her for three years. Upon his mother’s release, Jallal finds her without a shred of trust left for her nation and the two depart to Egypt. When Slima dies, Jallal — in search for his own identity and a growing devotion to religion — falls for the terminally-ill Mahmoud in Belgium. Jallal’s conversion into a jihadi, and his love for Mahmoud, lead the two into a final emotional explosion with their suicide bombing in Casablanca.
In the wake of the mass-shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando this month, Taïa’s novel speaks volumes on the social and cultural stakes involved in such acts of violence. “Infidels” offers a philosophical reflection on the traditionalist, nationalist, and religious effects on human nature.
Amin Maalouf Talks About His Latest Book 'Origins' With Carol Corm
"This book is certainly closer to Lebanon than most of my other books. In my novels I talk a lot about Lebanon, either directly or indirectly, the country is rarely completely left out. But “Origins,” along with “The Rock of Tanios,” is the book in which Lebanon is the most vivid." (Amin Maalouf)
"Never has Amin Maalouf revealed himself as much as in his latest novel, “Origins,” recently released in France but not yet translated into English...In a historical investigation that takes us from Ellis Island to Cuba and back to Lebanon, Maalouf tries to see through his ancestors' tangled rivalries. And although the Maalouf story is unique, it will remind many Lebanese readers of their own family histories, full of the adventures particular to migrant people. The following is an interview by phone with Amin Maalouf. I conducted the interview in French and later translated it into English." (From Ms. Corm's introduction to the interview with Amin Maalouf). This interview appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 10, Nos. 46/47 (Winter/Spring 2004). To read the full interview, click on the link below:
United Arab Emirates: Spyware the New Frontiers of Human Rights Violations
The use of commercial spyware has gained popularity over the years, not only in large countries like the United States, but also in smaller countries like the United Arab Emirates. Obtaining the software from various companies across the world, such as NSO Group and Finfisher, rich and poor governments alike have been gradually advancing their spyware programs in an effort to monitor dissenters. The Emirates in particular have targeted journalists, dissidents, and human rights activists—any and all who criticize the government. Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist in the U.A.E., found himself the victim of government spying that resulted in him being imprisoned for insulting Emirate rulers. Upon his release, he was beaten and robbed of his car and $140,000 from his bank account. He remained unaware of the digital surveillance until a year after his release.
While selling spyware outside Europe remains illegal, the Emirates have managed to secretively obtain examples of the software, becoming the second best customers of the Hacking Team—a company specializing in spyware—before that company lost its license. After that, the country focused on developing their own spyware. Bill Marczak, from the Citizen Lab, traced Mr. Mansoor’s e-mails and ultimately tracked the spyware to the Royal Group, run by one of the six ruling families of the Emirates.
Evidently, the government has played a large part in the country’s illegal spyware activities. Mr. Marczak discovered the use of such spyware on the Twitter accounts of 24 Emiratis, followed by the immediate arrest of three of the individuals in question after the online surveillance began. Although Emirate rulers attempt to paint a positive image to outsiders, boasting of their vocal support for the women’s rights movement and their large investments in the foreign aid budget, their dealings with illegal spyware continue to impede human rights. For more on this story, click on the link below.
In picture: Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist in the United Arab Emirates. (Photo Credit: The New York Times)
'Deadly Identities' by Amin Maalouf
"Since I left Lebanon in 1976 to establish myself in France, I have been asked many times, with the best intentions in the world, if I felt more French or more Lebanese. I always give the same answer: "Both." Not in an attempt to be fair or balanced but because if I gave another answer I would be lying. This is why I am myself and not another, at the edge of two countries, two or three languages and several cultural traditions. This is precisely what determines my identity. Would I be more authentic if I cut off a part of myself?... Half French and half Lebanese, then? Not at all! The identity cannot be compartmentalized; it cannot be split in halves or thirds, nor have any clearly defined set of boundaries. I do not have several identities, I only have one, made of all the elements that have shaped its unique proportions. (From Deadly Identities.) This article is excerpted from Amin Maalouf’s “Les identité meurtriè [Deadly Identities] (Grasset, 1998). Translated for Al Jadid, from the French, by Professor Brigitte Caland. This excerpt appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 4, No. 25 (Fall 1998) Copyright (c) 1998, 2016 by Al Jadid . To read the full article, click on the link below:
Artwork: Amin Maalouf by Mamoun Sakkal for Al Jadid Magazine
New Novel Explores Gay Arab Man’s Struggle for Identity
Saleem Haddad’s debut novel, “Guapa,” tells of the ongoing struggle with identity that Rasa — a young gay man living in the Middle East — deals with after his grandmother, Teta, discovers his relationship with the “love of his life,” Taymour. Teta raised Rasa after his father passed away and his mother disappeared when he was still a child. His grandmother served as his moral compass for the majority of his life, so Teta's coldness after walking in on him and his lover in bed shatters Rasa and also makes him feel shame for being gay and for being incapable of changing himself.
Glimpses of his past in the United States further emphasize Rasa’s battle with both his sexual and racial identity. There, after earning a college degree, he witnessed firsthand the sudden shift in attitude toward him — the way society, after the September 11 attacks, branded him as a potential threat. This fueled the young man’s desire to find a place to belong when he finally returned to his homeland.
Amidst the upheavals of the Arab Spring, Rasa attempts to live life normally in an unnamed Arab city, in a quasi-totalitarian society. The young man frequents Guapa, a gay bar where he feels most at home. While casual facades of market bargaining and scenic views of palm trees riddle the city, the book also includes images of angry mobs, protests that Rasa sometimes joins, and lines of tear-stricken children awaiting their food rations. Throughout his narrative, Rasa reveals the stifling complications that come from being expected to live up to the “norms” of society, from traditional family roles to his attitudes towards and participation in the political unrest on the streets.
Camus on Trump! And Perhaps on Others!
A recent article in the New Yorker (May 16), “Camus Again,” recalls Albert Camus’ first and only visit to the United States 70 years ago. The remembrance includes many academics and artists, mainly from Columbia University, and, most notably, Alexandre Alajbegovic (a 32-year old Frenchman who manages the Camus estate in France) and the American-Danish actor, Viggo Mortensen, who reenacted Camus’s 1946 lecture, “The Crisis of Humankind,” in the Miller Theater, standing where the famous writer and philosopher stood 70 years ago.
Mr. Mortensen especially caught my attention when he recalled Camus' sentiments in the wake of WW II concerning Europe’s "absence of values which had led to disaster,” adding “that societies had decided that a leader was right merely because he’d succeeded.” This vital linkage between Europe in the interwar period and today’s politics proved highly relevant. The actor added that he “admired the writer’s independence in standing up to both the left and the right… He was fearless.” Mortensen concluded, “All of these things Camus is saying about politicians, [and] buffoonery—it’s like this respect for Trump. He’s winning, he’s the strongest, so that makes it good.” A quick glimpse at the Arab world today reveals that even the most genocidal leaders, Hitler’s pupils, gain the respect of some intellectuals and politicians just because they are gaining territories, no matter the number of people killed and displaced in the process. To read the full article, please click on the link below:
Artwork of Viggo Mortensen: Credit Illustrator by Tom Bachtell, The New Yorker
From the Archive — 19 Years Ago in Al Jadid Magazine
The Tarabishi — Al-Jabiri Debate
A work which would have stirred a rich intellectual debate, involving historical and methodological questions in studying contemporary Arab political thought has, instead, taken a bizarre twist. The intellectual controversy started with George Tarabishi's book “Nakd Nakd Al `Aql Al Arabi, Nazariyyat Al Aql" 1996 book, through which he leveled serious charges against al-Jabiri, which included al-Jabiri’s distortions, and misuses of sources. This controversy became intensified after al-Jabiri gave an interview to a Moroccan newspaper (Al Itihad). In the interview, al-Jabiri accuses his main critic of being Christian (Tarabishi) and insensitive to Islamic culture. He also accuses his critics of plotting and conspiring against him, labeling them as Leftists and Communists (from the Mashreq). Both Tarabishi and al-Jabiri had their supporters. Tarabishi’s defenders, who are cited in the essay, dismiss the charge of dogmatic Marxism, especially when Tarabishi himself spoke of evolving ideologically and theoretically, while some lamented the debate that descended to the level of exchanging insults and name-calling. Other supporters of Tarabishi accused al-Jabiri of being chauvinistic and nationalistic, citing his apologetic position toward Saddam Hussein. Al-Jabiri had his own supporters, as well. They accused Tarabishi and his defenders of trying to expel al-Jabiri from the Moroccan university where he taught, while one supporter of al-Jabiri labeled the attacks on him as ideological rather than epistemological, and claimed that the whole campaign against al-Jabiri aimed to diminish his scientific and academic credentials. A former student of al-Jabiri’s (Abd al-Ilah Balqaziz) even attempted to disqualify Tarabishi as an expert on the subject of Turath, diminishing the importance of his books, while belittling them in comparison to al-Jabiri’s. As for Tarabishi’s response, he promised to sue al-Jabiri for leveling sectarian charges against him, singling out his Christian faith as the only grounds on which he criticized al-Jabiri.
Nineteen years ago, I wrote “The Tarabishi — al-Jabiri Debate, A New Book Debunks Muhammad Abd al-Jabberi’s Theory, Sources, and Interpretations” in Al Jadid, Vol. 3, no. 17 (April 1997). Although both men have since died, al Jabiri in 2010, and Tarabishi in 2016, their debate still remains relevant and controversial. To read the full article, please click on the link below:
(Artworks: George Tarabishi and Mohammed Abed al-Jabiri by Zareh for Al Jadid Magazine)
'The System of Silence' Cease-Fire Aimed at Silencing the Syrian People, Not the Guns!
Is the New Kerry-Lavrov Ceasefire Different?
The International relations (or politics) field creatively coins terms of conflicts as well as conflict resolutions, such as cease-fires. The cease-fire agreement reached in late February between the U.S. and Russia about Syria, creatively named “The System of Silence,” remains more double talk than solution to the conflict. Al Hayat columnist Elias Harfoush made a poignant observation on May 1 about this name, stating, “In the mindset of Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran, the intended silence of the guns applies only to those guns aimed at the regime. They require and intend the silence of the Syrians." He continues that the message behind “The System of Silence” infers that “had the Syrians remained silent, as they were during most of the past 40 years under the rule of the Assads' family, they would have been spared what happened to them, their families, properties, and their country, as well as what they face today.” The fact that Aleppo hovers on the verge of destruction now can be explained by its refusal to remain “silent.” Once more, Secretary Kerry tries to convince Foreign Secretary Lavrov to extend the cease-fire to cover Aleppo which was excluded in late February.
To read the New York Times article on the new ceasefire, click on the link below: