Al Jadid Blog

Documentary Reveals Constant Surveillance of Arab Americans
Combining the personal with the political, young filmmaker and journalist Assia Boundaoui uncovers decades of FBI surveillance of her Arab American neighborhood on the outskirts of Chicago. Her documentary, “The Feeling of Being Watched” (Women Make Movies, 2018), follows Assia as she digs into the history of FBI involvement in her community, dating as far back as 1997 and continuing to the present. Constant surveillance and a perpetual unsafe feeling, “like someone is invading your life” haunt the residents of her hometown, where many still harbor lingering fears after their neighborhood was ‘visited’ — a euphemism for FBI questioning — several years before. Distrust and racism run rampant, and Assia turns to the Freedom of Information Act to petition for the release of the FBI reports on her community.
“The Feeling of Being Watched,” reviewed by Lynne Rogers, is scheduled to appear in the forthcoming Al Jadid, Vol. 24, No. 79, 2020.
(Stills from the film, courtesy of Women Make Movies.)

Women Still Standing in the Documentary ‘I Am the Revolution’

Capturing the everyday lives of women devoted to activism, Benedetta Argentieri’s documentary “I Am the Revolution” (Women Make Movies, 2018) gives an up-close and personal look into the grassroots activism in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq after the Arab Spring. Argentieri tells the stories of several women, from Selay Ghaffar, the daughter of a freedom fighter who grew up as a refugee in Iran and Pakistan and risks her safety meeting victims throughout Afghanistan, to Yanar Mohammed, who fights for women’s rights in Iraq, and Rojda Felat, a Syrian-Kurdish commander who played a leading role against ISIS in Raqqa. Some stories glimpse into the front lines as viewers meet Syrian women fighters and mourn alongside them as they bury their comrades. In the words of the reviewer, ‘“I Am the Revolution” not only provides an in-depth view into the lives of these female crusaders, but their individual and inspiring bravery provide a hopeful model for both the Western and non-Western world.”

“I Am the Revolution,” reviewed by Lynne Rogers, is scheduled to appear in the forthcoming Al Jadid, Vol. 24, No. 79, 2020.

(Film still of protestors in “I Am the Revolution,” courtesy of Women Make Movies.)

On Poetry and Childhood
By Muayyad al-Rawi

Poetry often defies definition. On the one hand, poetry invariably exists in a self-referential crisis it is always trying to overcome, while on the other it holds up a mirror to humanity’s own crises across the ages. Perhaps this complexity is due in part to the fact that, in my view, poetry, and art generally, is opposed to logic. Our everyday world, however, mostly runs on the power of logic and reason, which form a system controlling modern life that distances us from poetry.

None of the ancient myths or arts bequeathed to us from our forebears were governed by the kind of logic that governs us today. This is why they can still inspire awe and introspection; they are, to a great extent, poetic, as we see best in the great epics of literature.

By logic I mean here the whole of human knowledge that is passed down from one generation to the next, the prerequisite conditions and laws that have accumulated over time to govern people, setting the course of their lives and the trajectory of their desires in a pragmatic direction. 

We first learn this logic, this way of living in the modern world, from childhood, through the institution of the family. Then in schools and universities, we are bombarded with all sorts of instruction and preparation in order to instill in us a discipline to resist any “passion,” imaginative expression, or risky intellectual endeavor that could enable us to rediscover the world many times over.

Children are born poets. They see the world differently from socialized adults. We recognize the visible, while children see the liminal spaces of the geography we have mapped. So too, their sense of time is not limited to past, present, and future, nor hours, days and years. Children are bathed in the wonder of exploration and the delight of adventure.

Dreams, too, are like children, refusing to bow to logic. Perhaps they serve as an escape from the confinement of logic, a return to childhood, to the wellspring of life and a re-imagining of this world.

I believe that a crucial part of any poet’s enterprise must be to escape the collective identity into which we have been domesticated, and to depart from the heavy-handed hierarchy of institutions on which this identity rests. The poet’s mission is to discover a deep, intrinsic sense of self outside the social structure. Such an undertaking is necessarily difficult, as it casts the poet out of “life” as we know it. But in return, the poet draws near to poetry. It is an enterprise that, through reflection and solitude, brings the poet back to life, and into dialogue with the nature of things outside their former boundaries. It accords the poet a language freed from its pragmatic function.

(Poet Muayyad al-Rawi "On Poetry and Childhood" on the fifth anniversary of his passing, October 8, 2015, Berlin.)

Brothers Take Two Paths to Exile in Jordan Ritter Conn’s ‘The Road from Raqqa’

Capturing a family’s memory and their longing for home, Jordan Ritter Conn’s debut book “The Road from Raqqa: A Story of Brotherhood, Borders, and Belonging” (Ballantine Books, 2020) tells of two brothers and their diverging paths into exile. The book follows Riyad and Bashar Alkasem, two Syrian brothers whose lives open a window into Syria’s middle class under Assad’s rule. Although both brothers are fascinated with law, Riyad, the more liberal of the two, emigrates to America when his critical views of Assad put him and his family at risk. Though he returns to Raqqa after hearing that Assad no longer controls the city, he is subsequently forced into exile once more before the war begins. The more conservative Bashar, in the meantime, prepares to become a judge just as Daesh takes over Raqqa. Forced to flee from their home for safety, he and his family settle in Germany with the hopes of finding stability. “While ultimately heartwarming in their sense of family and their individual perseverance, the stories of these two brothers drastically illustrate that regardless of politics, one loses in Syria,” in the words of the reviewer.
“The Road from Raqqa: A Story of Brotherhood, Borders, and Belonging,” reviewed by Lynne Rogers, is scheduled to appear in the forthcoming Al Jadid, Vol. 24, No. 79, 2020.
(Photograph of author Jordan Ritter Conn by Samantha Hearn for the New York Times.)

D.W. Aossey’s Latest Spy Thriller ‘Oath of Vengeance’
The second installment of D.W. Aossey’s Vu Lundberg Trilogy, “Oath of Vengeance” thrusts readers into the heart of a riveting spy thriller, following protagonist Vu as he traverses the Levant, Maghreb, and Central Asia. The story picks up as a cabal of American government officials orchestrate a terror attack on Oslo in a plot to secure the world’s largest oil reserve. “Oath of Vengeance” offers an intriguing cast -- from the Egyptian immigrant Fuad to the Norwegian single mother Lillian Adreesen. In the words of the reviewer “each and every personality speaks in a distinct voice and is endowed with aesthetic and psychological features that meticulously scale to their role in the plot.” With intricate plotlines and a dark re-imagining of some of the most significant international events of the 21st century, this novel is a must-read for any lover of the genre.
“Oath of Vengeance,” reviewed by Michael Teague, is scheduled to appear in the forthcoming Al Jadid, Vol. 24, No. 79, 2020.

Intellectual Correspondence During 10th Century Buyid Dynasty Raises Issues Relevant Today
Why are intelligent people more susceptible to grief? Why do atheists act morally? These are only two of the many questions that captivated philosopher Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi and philosopher-historian Abu Ali Miskawayh, two influential 10th century thinkers. Their correspondence is captured in the second volume of “The Philosopher Responds” (NYU Press, 2019) edited by Bilal Orfali and Maurice A. Pomerantz. Between pondering comical questions and exploring deep, poetic and philosophical mysteries, Tawhidi offers “serious philosophical inquiries to curiosity about seemingly innocuous paradoxes in things he observed around him,” while Miskawayh “rein[s] in the musings of his correspondent with definitive answers.” Giving illuminating insight into the philosophical debates among intellectuals during the 10th century Buyid dynasty, this volume is a fascinating read for aspiring scholars of classical Arabic texts, in the words of the reviewer.
“The Philosopher Responds,” reviewed by Joseph Sills, is scheduled to appear in the forthcoming Al Jadid, Vol. 24, No. 79, 2020.
Love Letters to Palestine
Editor Nora Lester Murad, an ajnabeeya (foreigner) herself, presents a collection of essays written by non-Palestinians in “I Found Myself in Palestine: Stories of Love and Renewal from Around the Globe” (Olive Branch Press, 2020). From the story of Steve, who marries and starts a family with a Muslim woman from Ramallah and building the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, to Japanese activist and Professor Saul Jihad Takahashi, who finds faith in Islam, these essays tell the stories of people who find hope, love, and solidarity under occupation, as well as detail domestic life in Palestine from “the outsider on the inside,” in the words of the reviewer.
“I Found Myself in Palestine: Stories of Love and Renewal from Around the Globe,” reviewed by Lynne Rogers, is scheduled to appear in the forthcoming Al Jadid, Vol. 24, No. 79, 2020. 
(On the right, photograph of editor Nora Lester Murad from Al-Shabaka.)
Hundreds of books and thousands of articles will be written about Beirut and the explosion at the Port. The city occupies a special place in my heart that transcends patriotic sentiment. It is composed of simple, personal, emotional, and unfading memories. Since August 4th, I have been fixated on news from Beirut, jotting down any notes that evoke nostalgic memories of a bygone era. For more than a decade, Beirut has been struggling to heal old emotional wounds, starting with the assassination of the former prime minister and a group of intellectuals, journalists, and politicians that followed. None of the assassins ever met justice. Mindful of the Special Tribunal verdict in the trial for the 2005 bombing that killed former PM Rafik Hariri, which is expected on August 18th, and the uncertainty over the assassination of others, Lebanese journalist Ghassan Charbel wrote: "Covering up the assassinations in the capital is one thing while covering up the assassination of a capital is a different matter.” Close observers of Lebanese politics cannot miss the symbolism of Charbel’s statement. While identifying those who assassinated the leaders of the Cedar Revolution remains difficult, identifying those who destroyed Beirut will not be.
(The day after the disaster, Tom Young, August 2020, courtesy of Hana Jaber’s Facebook page.)
The Crime of Music Brings Fame, Danger to Yarmouk Refugee in New Autobiographical Novel
“Dedicated to the political prisoners of Syria, Aeham Ahmad’s memoir, “The Pianist from Syria,” recounts his momentous journey from diligent student to hopeful young father and musician to YouTube sensation and finally to a hunted man forced to flee Syria as a refugee in Germany. His unusual story begins with his remarkable father, a blind Palestinian violinist who finds refuge in Yarmouk, a suburb of Damascus, and defies fate by becoming a skilled maker of musical instruments. As a child, Aeham became his father’s guide through the streets to homes where he gave lessons and tuned instruments, and this gives the reader a wide-ranging view of Syrian society before the war.” (An excerpt from Lynne Rogers’ review of “The Pianist from Syria: A Memoir” to be published in the forthcoming issue of Al Jadid, Vol. 24, No. 79, 2020).
(On the left, Aeham Ahmad performing amid the destruction of war in 2014, photographed by Niraz Saied.)
Yamina Benahmed Daho’s New Book Intertwines Two Assaults, One Sexual, One Political
New Year’s Eve, 2011 – returning home from a friend’s party, Alya is assaulted and nearly raped by an unknown assailant. She struggles and manages to escape, but the event shakes her to the core, and her attacker remains at large. Her life has changed entirely. “I am afraid to leave my house. And now, I am afraid to return to it,” she told her friend.
Thus begins Algerian Francophone writer Yamina Benahmed Daho’s recent work, “As I Remember” (De mémoire, Gallimard, 2019), written in monologue format as a series of letters, and drawn from her own experience with sexual assault. Through the eyes of Alya, readers witness the traumatic despair of a young woman as she is forced to relive her story through several retellings: to the investigator, the doctor, the psychologist, and the judge. She struggles with anxiety and looming fear, having isolated herself and dropped out of university, and yet not being able to move on due to endless court proceedings. Alya describes how “being a woman on the street during the night was a risk in itself.” Even sleep becomes difficult as she fears her attacker will return to finish what he started.
Daho’s “De mémoire” emerged in the midst of the “MeToo” movement in Europe. This coincidence “did not make the author change her project or her way of writing, but rather reinforced the idea that what she was writing goes beyond her individual position to touch upon the position of many women,” according to Antoine Jockey in Independent Arabia, which led some critics to describe her text as “feminist.” Although Daho does not disagree, she prefers to call the book “political.”
Tawfiq Belfadel, writing in the French website The Literary Cause, goes a step further in describing Daho’s book. Indeed, “De mémoire” is a reflection on “the female condition reduced to its body, precisely to its sex.” In his reading of the text, being outdoors constitutes a permanent danger for women, rather than freedom, because, as Alya notes, “Public spaces were thought by and constructed for men. Streets and squares mostly have male names.”
Combating the trauma of the attack remains a focal point of the book. Daho, who studied philosophy and literature, avoids dramatizing the events and gives important insight into psychological effects. This is perhaps best described by Belfadel, who noted that the book is light on plot and action, while “the abstract and psychological character is the center.”
However, as cited in Independent Arabia, Daho states, “I don’t intend to use writing as therapy, but rather as a valuable literary document.” In writing “De mémoire,” she also discovered more about herself: the story of her family – who had left Algeria for France during the war of liberation against the French – and who struggled with adaptation, assimilation, and the difficulties of living in exile as an immigrant. In the words of Jockey of Independent Arabia, “The writer approaches her main subject to tell the other story of the Algerian war and its consequences for her and her family, as if her individual memory had awakened her collective memory of the war.”
The Algerian war plays a central role in the novel, one that becomes inextricably intertwined with Alya’s assault. With the help of a psychoanalyst, Alya reconstructs the memory of the attack, but in doing so, reaches deep into her own past and that of her family. In a 2019 interview with Johan Faerber of the French website Diacritik, Daho said that “In placing this event at the center of the story, I was echoing older violence, inherited from a family history that is itself inscribed in a history at once social and political, in which the violence is multiplied tenfold because it is collective.”
(Photo: On the left, a photograph of Yamina Benahmed Daho, courtesy of Gallimard.)

Vengeance and ‘Honor,’ Not Compassion: New Novel by Yasmina Khadra Examines Husband's Self-Centered Response to His Wife's Rape
Algerian Francophone writer Yasmina Khadra (the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul) has returned with a dark crime novel, the first installment of a new trilogy, “L’outrage Fait à Sarah Ikker”(“The Assault of Sarah Ikker,” 2019), published by Julliard. The story follows Idriss Ikker, a poor young man who leaves his rural home for Tangier, Morocco, in order to escape his fate as a shepherd, the family trade. Idriss studies law in the city and enrolls in the police academy, though he realizes that without a wasta (connection), he will have no chance of becoming an officer. He soon finds himself drawing the attention of Sarah, the headmaster’s daughter, who comes from a higher social class. The two fall in love and get married, but the halcyon days do not last for long.
One day, Idriss returns home to find Sarah bound and unconscious on their bed, physically assaulted and raped. While his colleagues and Sarah’s father try to keep him from the investigation, Idriss takes matters into his own hands and embarks on a quest to find the perpetrator. Honor – and by extension, the topic of honor crimes – comes into play as the thought of revenge consumes Idriss to the extent that he becomes cold to his wife.
Idriss’ obsession with revenge is used to discuss the status of women in North African society. This was described most succinctly by Mohammed Aissaoui in the French magazine Le Figaro, when he noted that Khadra confronts his readers with “implausible scenes in which a woman is violated, but it is her husband who complains.” Wholly preoccupied with his own sense of violated honor, Idriss is indifferent, and even hostile to his wife, precisely at the moment when she needs him most. It is Sarah’s mother who addresses Idriss’s misplaced sense of honor at several points throughout the text, for instance when she says that “A woman is always guilty of being the victim,” or, even more unsparingly, that “You were the one who was raped, but he thinks that he is the one suffering. Your profaned flesh weighs less heavily on him than his own pseudo-honor.”
Critics have questioned whether “The Assault of Sarah Ikker” is a crime novel. Though Idriss’ mission remains at the forefront of the conflict, this does not stop him from dismantling and exposing the systems of corruption rampant in Maghrebi societies along the way. Khadra touches on the arrogance of rich and elite families, the hypocrisy of society, and the difficulty of life for women in Morocco. When asked about the novel’s setting, Khadra was quoted in Sawt Al-Ahrar Online, “My new novel came at the request of my readers in Morocco, including some of the women of Tangier who asked me to write something about their city. To achieve an old Maghreb dream, I always hope to see the borders that divide the Arab Maghreb disappear.”
Writing in Independent Arabia, Antoine Jockey says, “In-depth, it is a political novel par excellence, aside from being a thriller that holds our breath until the last page along with its psychological dimension. It is true that the rape of Sarah constitutes her central story, but her hero is Idriss. It is true that this man is a policeman, but he is also a complicated and dark figure.”
Khadra himself classifies the novel as police comedy – as, despite the heavy topics, he softens the atmosphere of drama and suspense with humor. He adds that “the detective story in Africa, outside Egypt, is completely forgotten...reading detective stories should become obligatory, especially for young adults, because it is the best way to see ourselves in the mirror.”
(On the right, photograph of Yasmina Khadra from Independent Arabia.)
Baalbeck International Festival: 'And the Band Played On...'

A web-based image of the performance.

"Sad and moving is Baalbek’s concert (part of the annual Baalbeck International Festival) tonight. As if saying goodbye to the Lebanon we knew and dreamed of. Lebanon, which was destroyed by the ruling clique, an alliance of sinister militias and capital. But we will not give up and will not be silent, and the sun will rise again from all the cities and villages of Lebanon." (Edited translation from the twitter page of Professor Jad Chaaban). Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and other circumstances in Lebanon, this year's concert was streamed and broadcast via TV channels, and YouTube. All Lebanese TV stations carried the concert Except Al Manar, Hezbollah's TV station.