art of resistance

Remembering Howard Zinn: To Be Hopeful In Bad Times.

In his 2002 autobiography You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn wrote:

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places–and there are so many–where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

howardn/Howard Zinn, photo via Howard Zinn facebook page/

Zinn passed away five years ago, a remarkable historian, a passionate activist. He wrote more than twenty books, including his best-selling and influential A People’s History of the United StatesHe was the first historian to write about American history from a perspective of indigenous people, from a perspective of the working class – people who worked in the steel mills, people who worked in the mines, people who worked on the railroads. He told the stories of immigrants, and presented all the rough hands and tortured faces that built the country we know as America.

When talking about his motivation and inspiration to write A People’s History of the United States, Zinn reflected on his first real teaching job in Atlanta, Georgia. He taught at Spelman College, a college for black women in Atlanta. He did so for seven years, from 1956 to 1963. Those were important years. In an interview on Democracy Now! Zinn described the experience:

“Those were the years of the civil rights movement and of turmoil, and they were very exciting and still perhaps the most intense experience of my life. And I became involved in the movement. I became a kind of participant, what sociologists call a ‘participant observer’ or participant writer. I was involved in the movement, and I began writing about it for The Nation and for Harper’s, and became involved with SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And I began to think about history from the black point of view, because it’s hard to live in the black community and teach in a black college without beginning—at least beginning to think of history from a different point of view.

And everything looks different in history when you look at from the black point of view. If you take just something like the Progressive period in American history, anybody who studies history goes through and there’s always a period called the Progressive Era or the Progressive period in American history, which is the first years of the 20th century, roughly between 1900 and, you know, World War I, the Progressive period. Why is it called the Progressive period? Well, because some reforms were passed, right?

The meat inspection—Meat Inspection Act was passed. You notice how good our meat is? Meat Inspection Act, railroad regulation, 16th Amendment, 17th Amendment, Federal Reserve Act—this is what you learned in school, right? You got multiple-choice questions about—to see if you knew the difference between, you know, the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Reserve Commission. And if you read a black historian, which I read while I was teaching in Spelman College, a black historian named Rayford Logan, who wrote exactly about that period—he didn’t call it the Progressive period, he called it ‘the nadir,’ the bottom. The Progressive period was the period in which more black people were lynched than any other period in American history. And still it continued to be called the Progressive period in American history.

So, from a black point of view, all the presidents of the United States look different. Lincoln looked different. Lincoln suddenly was not, you know, the Great Emancipator represented in that statue with the black kneeling before him gratefully, you know, where Lincoln bestows emancipation. From the black point of view, or from any decent point of view, Lincoln was a reluctant emancipator. Lincoln had to be pushed into it, by a movement, by an anti-slavery movement, by black abolitionists and white abolitionists, by a crescendo of criticism of him for not doing anything about slavery, even while a civil war was going on and even after the South had seceded. You know, Lincoln looks different.

Roosevelt looks different. Did any of you see this new series on the Great Depression? There are some—a few of you are nodding your heads, so a lot of you haven’t, I assume, right? I won’t berate you for not seeing that, but it’s very good. Some of you may know the series Eyes on the Prize, and this is a little follow-up by the same producer, Henry Hampton, and it’s about the Great Depression. And the interesting thing about this, about the Great Depression, is that black people and their point of view—and I guess because Henry Hampton is doing it—are much more evident in looking at the Great Depression. And so, he points out to what anybody who has studied FDR fairly closely knows, that Roosevelt, who was, you know, I guess, one of our best presidents, in many, many ways—no question—but Roosevelt would not support the passage of an anti-lynching law in Congress, because he was tied in with the Southern Democrats and dependent on their political support.

Same thing with Kennedy. Kennedy, you know, the liberal president, the young and, you know, we all know the good things about—that everybody believed about Kennedy. But from the point of view of people in the movement, people in the South in the movement in the early 1960s, Kennedy was no civil rights advocate. Kennedy appointed racist segregationist judges in the deep South, in Alabama and Georgia and Mississippi. Kennedy’s Justice Department stood by while people were being beaten, and Kennedy didn’t respond. Same thing with his attorney general, Robert Kennedy. Heroes look different, everything looks different, when you look at it from a different point of view. So all of these things affected my thinking about history.

In the first chapter of People’s History, Columbus, The Indians, and Human Progress, we are, maybe for the first time in Western history textbooks, presented with a different view of Columbus and his great ‘discovery’ of America.

“Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:

‘They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned… . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… . They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.’

These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.

Columbus wrote:

‘As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.’

The information that Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold?

The Indians’ attempts to defend themselves failed. And when they ran off into the hills they were found and killed. So, Las Casas reports, ‘they suffered and died in the mines and other labors in desperate silence, knowing not a soul in the world to whom they could turn for help.’ He describes their work in the mines:

‘… mountains are stripped from top to bottom and bottom to top a thousand times; they dig, split rocks, move stones, and carry dirt on their backs to wash it in the rivers, while those who wash gold stay in the water all the time with their backs bent so constantly it breaks them; and when water invades the mines, the most arduous task of all is to dry the mines by scooping up pansful of water and throwing it up outside….’

After each six or eight months’ work in the mines, which was the time required of each crew to dig enough gold for melting, up to a third of the men died.

When he arrived on Hispaniola in 1508, Las Casas says, ‘there were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it….’

Thus began the history, five hundred years ago, of the European invasion of the Indian settlements in the Americas. That beginning, when you read Las Casas-even if his figures are exaggerations (were there 3 million Indians to begin with, as he says, or less than a million, as some historians have calculated, or 8 million as others now believe?)-is conquest, slavery, death. When we read the history books given to children in the United States, it all starts with heroic adventure-there is no bloodshed-and Columbus Day is a celebration.”

I think there are no words to thank Howard Zinn for all his efforts, his work, dedication, strength and optimism. History is something we make every day, and it is not seealed in a vacuum, high above, out of our reach. It is up to us to stand up for change, it is up to us to release the pressure. “Historically, the most terrible things – war, genocide, and slavery – have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience”, Zinn always warned.

The best way to thank Zinn is to keep on educating ourselves, to keep on thinking from different perspectives, to be active, to participate in our society and help all the ways we can. Zinn will always be remembered, for he was a true freedom fighter and one of the rare ones who used history as a tool to show the stories of the oppressed majority, and not as a celebration of the oppressing elites.

Paul Laverty, the screenwriter of También la lluvia (the film is depicting the struggle of the indigenous people of Bolivia against the privatization of their water supply, and is dedicated to Zinn’s memory), reflected on Zinn’s influence:

On the 27th of January 2010, while we were editing the film, Howard Zinn, after a lifetime of teaching, writing and activism, died while swimming at the age of 87. It was  a blow to lose such a wonderful collaborator, and modest friend, and I wish we could  have sat in that darkened cinema together, along with another 1000 strangers at the Toronto Film Festival, to watch the first public screening, and thereafter to have  participated in what was a wonderful debate. It was not to be, but I was massively  touched by the spontaneous applause from the audience when his name went up on screen.

Howard’s books are a homage to the courage and creativity of ordinary people. He doesn’t romanticise them, but he makes them central to our understanding.

You can read Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States online. You can also visit the website dedicated to Zinn’s work, offering a great archive of his articles and interviews, bibliography and video & audio material. Long live Howard Zinn!

• • •

Previous Remembering… sessions:

Remembering Pablo Neruda: Pablo Neruda, Presente!

Remembering Nadia Anjuman: One Day, My Hands Will Become Weavers

Remembering Meena Kamal: Hope is The Thing With Feathers

Remembering May Ziadeh: Ahead of (her) Time

Remembering Edward Said: In The Name of Humanism

and more.

Standard
Egypt, travel

Looking For The Sun: Going South Along The Nile.

I’ve already written about the photographer Myriam Abdelaziz and her project Menya’s Kids, which deals with child labor in the quarries of Menya, Egypt. It was about time to shine some light on one of her other projects – Going South Along the Nile, published on LensCulture. Abdelaziz writes:

In Egypt, where my blood is from, I traveled south…

maa

I needed to be closer to the sun. I was looking for a warmer place. I wanted to be with people who see the sun everyday, people whose skin has darkened, filled with all that sun. I knew that every single place, every single thing I would see there would be filled with that sun, I knew the South would give me this infinite warmth I badly needed, not to be bathed in but more inundated by, so I traveled south….

oleg

Going south of Egypt, life only exists by the borders of the Nile river. Many tiny villages have been lining the edges of the river for hundreds of years, some only to be destroyed to give space for archeologist excavations to explore older times, or for modern hotels to be built.

uo

Going south I met the sun I was looking for and the people filled with it… every place I went felt timeless, while I knew it could be the last time I might see it.

myr

I photographed to keep this warmth I needed so badly with me.”

as/all photos © Myriam Abdelaziz/

For more on this project, go to LensCulture. For more on Abdelaziz and her work, visit her facebook page, and see her profile on Rawiya.

• • •

P.S. While going through these photos, I recommend listening Omar Khairat’s relaxing and beautiful music. He’s one of the most successful and well-respected Egyptian composers of all time.

 

Standard
Afghanistan

Afghanistan: Under The Spell of Opium.

Afghanistan has had opium issues for many years now (the country is the leading opium supplier in the world). In a society disrupted by ongoing conflicts, where more than eighty percent of citizens are farmers, opium has been the only possible getaway for many people – for those producing it – it was a getaway from starvation, and for those consuming it – it was a getaway from the depressing reality. Afghanistan’s economy has thus evolved to the point where it is now highly dependent on opium, just like its people are.

NYC59855/Badakshan province. A farmer collects poppies. © Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos/

In the 2014 Afghanistan Opium Survey (UNODC & Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics), there are several key findings:

The vast majority (89%) of opium cultivation took place in nine provinces in Afghanistan’s Southern and Western regions, which include the country’s most insecure provinces. The total area under opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan was estimated at 224,000 hectares in 2014, a 7% increase from 2013.  Average opium yield amounted to 28.7 kilograms per hectare in 2014, which was 9% more than in 2013 (26.3 kilograms per hectare), and potential opium production was estimated at 6,400 tons.

opium/photo via UNODC/

Eradication efforts have forced many poppy farmers into the margins of the countryside. To many of them, opium is the only way of securing annual income, only way to survive. That is the way they have been living for many years. War has a lot to do with it, of course. War has everything to do with it, acutally. Since the 1979 Soviet invasion and the insecurity that came with it, opium poppy cultivation became the core of Afghanistan’s agricultural economy. Afghanistan overtook Myanmar as top producer of illicit opium in 1991, and the cultivation has been increasing ever since (with short downfall periods – after 2008, eradication efforts, as well as a cash incentive program for provinces that eradicated all opium poppy crops, helped reduce cultivation drastically through 2010).

NYC59778/Nangahar province. Women and children stand in a corner as DEA and Afghan interdiction troops assault a village hiding chemicals and drugs. © Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos/

Incapable and corrupt government does not make it easier for the farmers. The provinces that are poppy-free receive $1 million awards from the American Embassy, paid directly to the governor’s office. It is not known how that money is divided among people, or what is done for the people with it. Many farmers continue cultivating in new places, in the deep jungle of the countryside.

In the provinces that are not poppy-free, farmers are just angry and sick of promises – many of them are promised wheat seeds and fertilizers to start a new cultivation business, but most of them were never given any, the same way the USAID money (and other aid money) often goes to suspicious places and projects that are never carried out.

hsod/photo via UNODC/

Afghanistan is a country still broken in many ways, and it seems that the only thing it is good at is producing opium. Afghanistan could become a true narco-state. In an article ‘Can Afghanistan Win The War Against Opium?‘ (February 2011 National Geographic), veteran Afghan law enforcement official said: “Afghanistan is controlled by the drug mafia. How else do you think those people in the government with their low-paying salaries bought their fancy houses in Dubai and the U.S. in the past few years?”

Another issue concerning opium is the addiction – around ten percent of Afghans are addicted to drugs, often opium or herion. They rarely receive drug treatments, because there are not many rehabilitation programs, and if there are – they are underfunded.

NYC59824/A poster warning against the use of opium. © Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos/

The overall situation in Afghanistan could be described with one line from Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater: “I take it for granted, that those eat now who never ate before; And those who always ate, now eat the more.”

Standard
art of resistance, Guantanamo

Happy Birthday, GTMO: Guantánamo Diary.

This year I still didn’t write anything about GTMO and it’s birthday (January 11th), so this is my version of congratulations card. The book Guantánamo Diary is written by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, still imprisoned Guantánamo detainee. It is the first ever public account written by a still-imprisoned Guantánamo detainee. Slahi has been in Guantánamo for twelve years, although United States has never charged him with a crime. A federal judge ordered his release in 2010, but he remains in custody.

tumblr_mm2p9g7CcA1qedj2ho1_1280/Guantánamo Diary, photo via The FJP/

Three years into his captivity Slahi began a diary, recounting his life before he disappeared into U.S. custody, “his endless world tour” of imprisonment and interrogation, and his daily life as a Guantánamo prisoner. The following is an excerpt from Slahi’s diary.

Jordan–Afghanistan–GITMO
July 2002– February 2003

The American Team Takes Over … Arrival at Bagram … Bagram to GTMOGTMO, the New Home … One Day in Paradise, the Next in Hell

July __, 2002, 10 p.m.

The music was off. The conversations of the guards faded away. The truck emptied. I felt alone in the hearse truck. The waiting didn’t last: I felt the presence of new people, a silent team. I don’t remember a single word during the whole rendition to follow.

A person was undoing the chains on my wrists. He undid the first hand, and another guy grabbed that hand and bent it while a third person was putting on the new, firmer and heavier shackles. Now my hands were shackled in front of me.

Somebody started to rip my clothes with something like a scissors. I was like, What the heck is going on? I started to worry about the trip I neither wanted nor initiated. Somebody else was deciding everything for me; I had all the worries in the world but making a decision. Many thoughts went quickly through my head. The optimistic thoughts suggested, ‘Maybe you’re in the hands of Americans, but don’t worry, they just want to take you home, and to make sure that everything goes in secrecy.’ The pessimistic ones went, ‘You screwed up! The Americans managed to pin some shit on you, and they’re taking you to U.S. prisons for the rest of your life.’

I was stripped naked. It was humiliating, but the blindfold helped me miss the nasty look of my naked body. During the whole procedure, the only prayer I could remember was the crisis prayer, Ya hayyu! Ya kayyum! and I was mumbling it all the time. Whenever I came to be in a similar situation, I would forget all my prayers except the crisis prayer, which I learned from life of our Prophet, Peace be upon him.

One of the team wrapped a diaper around my private parts. Only then was I dead sure that the plane was heading to the U.S. Now I started to convince myself that “every thing’s gonna be alright.” My only worry was about my family seeing me on TV in such a degrading situation. I was so skinny. I’ve been always, but never that skinny: my street clothes had become so loose that I looked like a small cat in a big bag.

When the U.S. team finished putting me in the clothes they tailored for me, a guy removed my blindfold for a moment. I couldn’t see much because he directed the flashlight into my eyes. He was wrapped from hair to toe in a black uniform. He opened his mouth and stuck his tongue out, gesturing for me to do the same, a kind of AHH test which I took without resistance. I saw part of his very pale, blond-haired arm, which cemented my theory of being in Uncle Sam’s hands.

The blindfold was pushed down. The whole time I was listening to loud plane engines; I very much believe that some planes were landing and others taking off. I felt my “special” plane approaching, or the truck approaching the plane, I don’t recall anymore. But I do recall that when the escort grabbed me from the truck, there was no space between the truck and the airplane stairs. I was so exhausted, sick, and tired that I couldn’t walk, which compelled the escort to pull me up the steps like a dead body.

Inside the plane it was very cold. I was laid on a sofa and the guards shackled me, mostly likely to the floor. I felt a blanket put over me; though very thin, it comforted me.

I relaxed and gave myself to my dreams. I was thinking about different members of my family I would never see again. How sad would they be! I was crying silently and without tears; for some reason, I gave all my tears at the beginning of the expedition, which was like the boundary between death and life. I wished I were better to people. I wished I were better to my family. I regretted every mistake I made in my life, toward God, toward my family, toward anybody!

I was thinking about life in an American prison. I was thinking about documentaries I had seen about their prisons, and the harshness with which they treat their prisoners. I wished I were blind or had some kind of handicap, so they would put me in isolation and give me some kind of humane treatment and protection. I was thinking, What will the first hearing with the judge be like? Do I have a chance to get due process in a country so full of hatred against Muslims? Am I really already convicted, even before I get the chance to defend myself ?

I drowned in these painful dreams in the warmth of the blanket. Every once in a while the pain of the urine urge pinched me. The diaper didn’t work with me: I could not convince my brain to give the signal to my bladder. The harder I tried, the firmer my brain became. The guard beside me kept pouring water bottle caps in my mouth, which worsened my situation. There was no refusing it, either you swallow or you choke. Lying on one side was killing me beyond belief, but every attempt to change my position ended in failure, for a strong hand pushed me back to the same position.

I could tell that the plane was a big jet, which led me to believe that flight was direct to the U.S. But after about five hours, the plane started to lose altitude and smoothly hit the runway. I realized the U.S. is a little bit farther than that. Where are we? In Ramstein, Germany? Yes! Ramstein it is: in Ramstein there’s a U.S. military airport for transiting planes from the Middle East; we’re going to stop here for fuel. But as soon as the plane landed, the guards started to change my metal chains for plastic ones that cut my ankles painfully on the short walk to a helicopter. One of the guards, while pulling me out of the plane, tapped me on the shoulder as if to say, “you’re gonna be alright.” As in agony as I was, that gesture gave me hope that there were still some human beings among the people who were dealing with me.

When the sun hit me, the question popped up again: Where am I? Yes, Germany it is: it was July and the sun rises early. But why Germany? I had done no crimes in Germany! What shit did they pull on me? And yet the German legal system was by far a better choice for me; I know the procedures and speak the language. Moreover, the German system is somewhat transparent, and there are no two and three hundred years sentences. I had little to worry about: a German judge will face me and show me whatever the government has brought against me, and then I’m going to be sent to a temporary jail until my case is decided. I won’t be subject to torture, and I won’t have to see the evil faces of interrogators.

After about ten minutes the helicopter landed and I was taken into a truck, with a guard on either side. The chauffeur and his neighbor were talking in a language I had never heard before. I thought, What the heck are they speaking, maybe Filipino? I thought of the Philippines because I’m aware of the huge U.S. military presence there. Oh, yes, Philippines it is: they conspired with the U.S. and pulled some shit on me. What would the questions of their judge be? By now, though, I just wanted to arrive and take a pee, and after that they can do whatever they please. Please let me arrive! I thought; After that you may kill me!

The guards pulled me out of the truck after a five-minute drive, and it felt as if they put me in a hall. They forced me to kneel and bend my head down: I should remain in that position until they grabbed me. They yelled, “Do not move.” Before worrying about anything else, I took my most remarkable urine since I was born. It was such a relief; I felt I was released and sent back home. All of a sudden my worries faded away, and I smiled inside. Nobody noticed what I did.

Read the book Guantánamo Diary, for it is a rare window into the turture, pain, anxiety, and enormous injustice that shapes the lives of the detainees. Like Slahi, most of them spent numerous years of their lives in prison, with no charges against them. With that reality pressing him, Slahi still remains an optimist, a remarkable spirit caught in dreadful circumstances. Still, he survives, he lives, he writes. It’s upon us to atleast read what he has to say. The book is dedicated to his mother Maryem Mint El Wadia, who died while he was imprisoned.

Standard
art of resistance, India

Jhumpa Lahiri: Hell-Heaven (Unaccustomed Earth).

Jhumpa Lahiri has a great talent of writing genuinely, writing about everyday, writing about common, but still making it deeply revealing, interesting, and – finding wonders in it. The following is an excerpt from her short story Hell-Heaven (the story can be found in Lahiri’s collection of short stories Unaccustomed Earth). Here, once again, Lahiri deals with the experience of Indian immigrants in the USA, cutting through the delicate tissue of place and time, memory and identity.

ja/Jhumpa Lahiri, photo via media.npr.org/

He was from a wealthy family in Calcutta and had never had to do so much as pour himself a glass of water before moving to America, to study engineering at MIT. Life as a graduate student in Boston was a cruel shock, and in his first month he lost nearly twenty pounds. He had arrived in January, in the middle of a snowstorm, and at the end of the week he had packed his bags and gone to Logan, prepared to abandon the opportunity he’d worked toward all his life, only to change his mind at the last minute. He was living on Trowbridge Street in the home of a divorced woman with two young children who were always screaming and crying. He rented a room in the attic and was permitted to use the kitchen only at specified times of the day and instructed  always to wipe down the stove with Windex and a sponge. My parents agreed that it was a terrible situation, and if they’d had a bedroom to spare they would have offered it to him. Instead, they welcomed him to our meals and opened up our apartment to him at any time, and soon it was there he went between classes and on his days off, always leaving some vestige of himself: a nearly finished pack of cigarettes, a newspaper, a piece of mail he had not bothered to open, a sweater he had taken off and forgotten in the course of his stay.

I remember vividly the sound of his exuberant laughter and the sight of his lanky body slouched or sprawled on the dull, mismatched furniture that had come with our apartment. He had a striking face, with a high forehead and a thick mustache, and overgrown, untamed hair that my mother said made him look like American hippies who were everywhere in those days. His long legs jiggled rapidly up and down wherever he sat, and his elegant hands trembled when he held a cigarette between his fingers, tapping the ashes into a teacup that my mother began to set aside for this exclusive purpose. Though he was a scientist by training, there was nothing rigid or predictable or orderly about him. He always seemed to be starving, walking through the door and announcing that he hadn’t had lunch, and then he would eat ravenously, reaching behind my mother  to steal cutlets as she was frying them . before she had a chance to set them properly on a plate with red onion salad.

In private, my parents remarked that he was a brilliant student, a star at Jadavpur who had come to MIT with an impressive assistanship, but Pranab Kaku was cavallier about his classes, skipping them with frequency. ‘These Americans are learning equations I knew at Usha’s age’, he would complain. He was stunned that my second-grade teacher didn’t assign any homework and that at the age of seven I hadn’t yet been taught square roots or the concept of pi.

He appeared without warning, never phoning beforehand but simply knocking on the door the way people did in Calcutta and calling out ‘Boudi!’ as he waited for my mother to let him in. Before we met him, I would return from school and find my mother with her purse in her lap and her trench coat on, desperate to escape the apartment where she had spent the day alone. But now I would find her in the kitchen, rolling out dough for lunchis, which she normally made only on Sundays for my father and me, or putting up new curtains she’d bought at Woolworth’s. I didn’t know, back then, that Pranab Kaku’s visits were what my mother looked forward to all day, that she changed into a new sari and combed her hair in anticipation of his arrival, and that she planned, days in advance, the snacks she would serve him with such nonchalance. That she lived for the moment she heard him call out ‘Boudi!’ from the porch and that she was in a foul humor on the day he didn’t materialize.”

Standard
art of resistance

Horace Campbell on Boko Haram & Nigeria.

Last Friday, Democracy Now did a great show concerning Nigeria and Boko Haram. The guests were Adotei Akwei, managing director of government relations for Amnesty International USA, Rona Peligal, deputy director of Africa Division for Human Rights Watch, and Horace Campbell, professor of African American studies and political science at Syracuse University.

15287339777_d1f69c76dd_b/Horace Campbell, photo via Miscellanynews/

Campbell is the one that stole the show, with his on-point answers and the big picture analysis. Speaking about the rise of insurgence groups, he said:

“And what we’re describing in northern Nigeria and the scale of what has taken place in Baga clearly could not be the work of some groups of militias. So we’re dealing with many different entities here. And in the specific case of Nigeria, we’re dealing with the political struggles for control of the state, so that in the case of Nigeria, we have Boko Haram, or the elements that are called Boko Haram, that are financed from inside the top levels of the state apparatus. And the intensification of the killings and destabilization of Nigeria at the moment is directly related to the upcoming and forthcoming elections on February the 14th.”

He asked three important questions about Boko Haram and Nigeria in general:

“What is the role of the United States government in the knowledge that they have about Boko Haram? That’s a first point I want to make.

A second point is, with John Kerry, what do they know about the role of Chad in Baga and the relationship between Chad and those who are providing missiles and resources to Boko Haram and the destabilization of Nigeria?

The last point I want to make is that when there was a vote at the United Nations about Palestine a month ago, John Kerry called the Nigerian government to change its vote about Palestine half an hour before the vote was made. He called Goodluck Jonathan. Clearly, they have information about the compromised leaders in the Nigerian state who are financing Boko Haram. Why do they not bring that information to the African Union, to the United Nations, so that there’s an exposure of all of the forces—in Chad, in France, in the Cameroon and in the Nigerian leadership—who are financing Boko Haram?”

Campbell continued to say that Nigeria is by far the most dynamic force in Africa, describing how: “what everyone fears at the moment is the mobilization of the Nigerian people, as the people mobilized in Egypt or the people mobilized in Burkina Faso, to remove corrupt elements. So, there is a merger of forces of exploitation in Nigeria. Militias are being used against the people. The humiliation, violation and exploitation of women has reached the most obscene levels. And the accumulation by the Nigerian political class—40 percent of the oil wealth from Nigeria is siphoned off by that political class. The Boko Haram struggle is a struggle about who will control the billions of dollars, 10,000 barrels of oil per day, that is siphoned out of Nigeria.

The United States government have the information about bunkering, about exportive capital, about financing Boko Haram. The United States government used that information selectively in order to get what they want from the Nigerian government. Note, 40 years ago, the president of Nigeria, Murtala Mohammed, was called by Henry Kissinger when the Nigerians supported the Angolans and the Cubans in Southern Africa. And the Nigerians were very important at that point to tell Henry Kissinger, ‘Go to hell.’ Murtala Mohammed, the president of Nigeria, was killed after that, because Nigeria was not going along with what the United States want. We need a movement here to expose the collusion between the United States, the oil companies and the political class, who use elements such as Nigeria and Boko Haram to destabilize Nigerian society.”

He also reflected on the role of Chad:

“What we must ask ourselves is: How is it that the former governor of Borno State becomes part of the delegation of the government of Chad, when we have this notion that Chad was going to be a mediator? And the government of Nigeria spent millions of dollars to organize bringing back the girls, only to find out that elements from within the Chadian government were supplying weapons and missiles to Boko Haram from Sudan.

So, there is a wide web that we need to penetrate and investigate that we’re not dealing simply with some armed, wild-eyed young people. There is a conspiracy against the Nigerian people so that Nigeria is not stable, peaceful, so that the people can have a good quality of life.”

Watch the full interview on Democracy Now.

• • •

To end this post, here’s some great tunes from Nigeria. Salawa Abeni calling for equal rights.

Standard
art of resistance, Iraq

The Book To Read: Late For Tea At The Deer Palace.

Tamara Chalabi’s Late For Tea At The Deer Palace: The Lost Dreams of My Iraqi Family was the book I was really struggling with. It’s not because the book is poorly written or hard to read (quite the opposite), I was struggling with my inner thoughts and my own opinions of the people Chalabi wrote about, which were (most of the time) in contrast with the picture Chalabi painted throughout the book. But that is exactly why I wanted to read it and why I feel the need to write about it.

late for tea1

/Late For Tea At The Deer Palace by Tamara Chalabi/

My first reservation towards this book stemmed from the fact that Tamara’s father is Ahmed Chalabi, who helped US government in launching war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (for more about him, you can read Aram Roston’s book The Man Who Pushed America To War: The Extraordinary Life, Adventures and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi). After years in exile, Ahmad Chalabi entered Baghdad in 2003 as a would-be president of the new Iraq but he never reached that goal. In Late For Tea At The Deer Palace, Tamara Chalabi trys to stand outside her father’s shadow. In the first pages of the book, she writes:

“Everybody asks me about my father. He has been labelled a maverick, a charlatan, a genious. He has been named as the source of supposedly faulty intelligence that led America into the war in Iraq. He has been called a triple agent for the Us, Iran and Israel. But this is MY story.”

Still, the whole story of Late For Tea At The Deer Palace is based on memories of Chalabi family, so keeping a distance from certain aspects of her father’s story and his character was just impossible. The history of the Chalabi family is quite amazing. Pre-Saddam, the Chalabis held high rank: they were prominent Shia Muslims, part of the wealthy power elite, occupying positions of prestige and responsibility from the Ottoman Empire to the time of the national government. The Deer Palace was the nickname for the Chalabi mansion in Baghdad. Chalabi writes:

“The magnificent dining table could seat twenty-four, and was used for official receptions Abdul Hussein [Chalabi] held for personages such as the King, members of the Cabinet, official foreign visitors or the British High Commissioner.”

For the most part, the Chalabis were loyal to Nuri Said, the long-time British puppet who’d been part of Lawrence’s Arab Revolt in 1917 and who, until 1958, was the power behind the Iraqi throne. When the monarchy  was toppled in 1958, they fled to London.

The main character of the book is Bibi, Ahmed’s mother, a matriarch who’s quite spoiled and a snob, but also very fierce and determined in controling the lives of the others in the family. Her royal status was always extremely important to her, and the event that might illustrate this the best was when the family temporarily relocated and had to live without servants, in an apartment in London. Bibi was enraged to see her husband, Hadi, making baklava for the family, telling him she “didn’t marry a confectioner.”

chalabi family/The Chalabi Family, photo via NY Times/

It was so hard for me to relate to these people and to feel any kind of compassion. Tamara’s writing is gripping, captivating, but her main characters were just not that easy to identify with. I felt more sympathy towards their servants who were shortly mentioned from time to time. I didn’t have the same experience when reading Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, although the story was also from the perspective of a privileged family and a person who was part of the elite. In Chang’s book I felt a deep awareness of that fact (being privileged fact) and the great modesty of her family, while in the story of Chalabis – there is not a lot of that, and that makes it a little repulsive.

All that being said, I still think this is an important book and I would recommend reading it. It offers ‘the other side of the story’ on many levels, primarily two: privileged elites versus ‘regular’ masses and exile versus motherland. It is a well-told saga and a whole century of Iraqi culture and history is at times greatly woven into the story. Chalabi writes:

“Does exile ever really end? Rather than being a physical separation from a place, I believe that it is essentially a state of mind. It grows and evolves, taking on a life of its own. To have an inheritance of exile is a never-ending journey between myth and reality. Part of my coming to terms with Iraq entails accepting a reality that was built on an old dream; the dream of another home.”

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

A Sky So Close by Betool Kheadiri

My Happiness Bears No Relation To Happiness

Suad Amiry & The Absurdity of Life Under Occupation

Sohrab Sepehri & The Water’s Footfall

and more.

Standard
art of resistance

On Charlie Hebdo: No Man Is An Island.

I believe there is not a person on the internet this week who hasn’t heard about the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, or seen a hashtag JeSuisCharlie. Or, a day later, after some of the media reported about the dead cop, Ahmed, a new one  – JeSuisAhmed (although that was/is  less popular).

jesuisahmed

Last couple of days have been hectic in the social media world. People on facebook changed their profile pictures, cover photos, they created support groups, they raged, they tagged, on twitter they tweeted and retweeted like crazy, they used their hashtags vigorously…  I think way bigger effort went to showing support and expressing anger instantly than to pausing and understanding the event and the ‘big picture’. I am sure it did, for this is not a first time of such reactions, after all – we do live in a world of superficial social media (re)actions, actions that are sort of an aesthetic undertaking, a virtual creation born out of need to ‘participate’ which is more of a need to show others you’re participating, you have an opinion, you are up to date. To me, it often seems so repetitive, impersonal and just – fake.

So, yes, everyone had the need to say something, to comment. There were those who found this as a great opportunity to mask their own racisms and diverse phobias and aim it at muslim radicals, and denouncing Islam in general. It comes as no surprise that Bill Maher used this chance to slam Islam again. He said millions of Muslims are supporting the  terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, although he offered no statistical data to prove his claims (as usual).

He did not stop to think, like Joe Sacco did, saying: “But perhaps when we tire of holding up our middle finger we can try to think about why the world is the way it is. And what it is about Muslims in this time and place that makes them unable to laugh off a mere image.”

Sacco, a great cartoonist and journalist, also asked himself about the nature and purpose of satire in this time and place: “In fact, when we draw a line, we are often crossing one too, because lines on paper are a weapon and satire is meant to cut to the bone. But whose bone? What exactly is the target? And WHY?”

Capture/from Joe Sacco – On Satire, via Guardian/

Yes, free speech is important, always. It didn’t become important after this attack (attack from the outside), it is something extremely valued in the West for a long time, atleast that’s the impression we get… But is it actually, and do we indeed act (both governments and the public) like it is?

Teju Cole writes about it in the New Yorker, saying: “Western societies are not, even now, the paradise of skepticism and rationalism that they believe themselves to be. The West is a variegated space, in which both freedom of thought and tightly regulated speech exist, and in which disavowals of deadly violence happen at the same time as clandestine torture. But, at moments when Western societies consider themselves under attack, the discourse is quickly dominated by an ahistorical fantasy of long-suffering serenity and fortitude in the face of provocation. Yet European and American history are so strongly marked by efforts to control speech that the persecution of rebellious thought must be considered among the foundational buttresses of these societies. Witch burnings, heresy trials, and the untiring work of the Inquisition shaped Europe, and these ideas extended into American history as well and took on American modes, from the breaking of slaves to the censuring of critics of Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

He continues: “Rather than posit that the Paris attacks are the moment of crisis in free speech—as so many commentators have done—it is necessary to understand that free speech and other expressions of liberté are already in crisis in Western societies; the crisis was not precipitated by three deranged gunmen. The U.S., for example, has consolidated its traditional monopoly on extreme violence, and, in the era of big data, has also hoarded information about its deployment of that violence. There are harsh consequences for those who interrogate this monopoly. The only person in prison for the C.I.A.’s abominable torture regime is John Kiriakou, the whistle-blower. Edward Snowden is a hunted man for divulging information about mass surveillance. Chelsea Manning is serving a thirty-five-year sentence for her role in WikiLeaks. They, too, are blasphemers, but they have not been universally valorized, as have the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo.”

So yes, when it comes to free speach and the attacks from the inside – we are not always that loud. And we – our governments and mainstream media – tend to punish those who fight for free speach, free thinking and free information. In relation to this and reflecting on Mannings and Snowdens of the world, this attack is not really about free speech, and it is not about religion (although it is reported with emphasis on those two, so, in a way – it is being made about it and that is why we should reflect on those aspects too). This attack is about war and terrorism, and like all wars and terrorism in general – it is about those who profit making wars and installing terrror. Terrorism and religion should never be regarded as the same thing. Terrorism is not born out of religion. It is mainly born out of oppression, poverty, despair, but also – greed and will for power and resources.

In his latest piece for The Independent, Robert Fisk writes about Charlie Hebdo attackers:

“Algeria. Long before the identity of the murder suspects was revealed by the French police – even before I heard the names of Cherif and Said Kouachi – I muttered the word ‘Algeria’ to myself. As soon as I heard the names and saw the faces, I said the word ‘Algeria’ again. And then the French police said the two men were of ‘Algerian origin’. For Algeria remains the most painful wound within the body politic of the Republic – save, perhaps, for its continuing self-examination of Nazi occupation – and provides a fearful context for every act of Arab violence against France.(…)

paris/photo: Clichy-sous-Bois (Paris) is not served by any motorway or major road and no railway (not served by any station of the Paris Métro, RER, or suburban rail network) and therefore remains one of the most isolated of the inner suburbs of Paris (located only 15 kilometres from central Paris). Clichy-sous-Bois has a high unemployment rate and the vast majority of its population is made up of African heritage./

But there’s an important context that somehow got left out of the story this week, the ‘history corner’ that many Frenchmen as well as Algerians prefer to ignore: the bloody 1954-62 struggle of an entire people for freedom against a brutal imperial regime, a prolonged war which remains the foundational quarrel of Arabs and French to this day.

The desperate and permanent crisis in Algerian-French relations, like the refusal of a divorced couple to accept an agreed narrative of their sorrow, poisons the cohabitation of these two peoples in France. However Cherif and Said Kouachi excused their actions, they were born at a time when Algeria had been invisibly mutilated by 132 years of occupation. Perhaps five million of France’s six and a half million Muslims are Algerian. Most are poor, many regard themselves as second-class citizens in the land of equality.”

Like the film La Haine illustrated years ago, France does have a lot of minority issues, and is, in many aspects – a racist country.  Now, more than ever (with all  the media attention), it is time to finally talk about it, not to keep on sweeping it under the rug while at the same time waving the old Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité flag. Long gone are those days…

One of the things France and its people should discuss is the fact that even today fourteen African countries are obliged by France, trough a colonial pact, to put 85% of their foreign reserve into France central bank under French minister of Finance control. In 2014, Togo and about 13 other African countries still had to pay colonial debt to France. African leaders who refuse are killed or victim of coup. Those who obey are supported and rewarded by France with lavish lifestyle while their people endure extreme poverty, and desperation. Mawuna Remarque Koutonin also writes how under “Defence Agreements” attached to the Colonial Pact, France had the legal right to intervene militarily in the African countries, and also to station troops permanently in bases and military facilities in those countries, run entirely by the French.

French-military-bases-in-africa/French military bases in Africa, photo via SiliconAfrica/

The article ends with: “For historical comparison, France made Haiti to pay the modern equivalent of $21 billion from 1804 till 1947 (almost one century and half) for the losses caused to french slave traders by the abolition of slavery and the liberation of the Haitian slaves. African countries are paying the colonial tax only for the last 50 years, so I think one century of payment might be left!”

In March  2008, former French President Jacques Chirac said: “Without Africa, France will slide down into the rank of a third [world] power.” Well, atleast he admitted it. But what do people of Africa have from it? Maybe an illustration from the film Touki Bouki can help:

10153122_10203524588853948_1692857486_n/Touki Bouki snapshot/

Lastly, the attack in Paris is not the only horrible thing that happened this week (horrible in terms of media horrible scales). On the same day of Charlie Hebdo attack around 40 people died, and more than 60 were injured in a suicide attack in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. Two days ago, another massacre in Nigeria happened. Hundreds of bodies – too many to count – remain strewn in the bush in Nigeria from an Islamic extremist attack that Amnesty International described as the “deadliest massacre” in the history of Boko Haram (estimates are that around two thousand people have been killed). Most victims are children, women and elderly people who could not run fast enough when insurgents drove into Baga, firing rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles on town residents. Around 1.5 million people have been displaced by the violence so far, many of whom will not be able to vote in the polls under Nigeria’s current electoral laws.

There’s no epidemic of profile pictures changing and hashtagging for that. Our (western) focus is, as Teju Cole writes: “part of the consensus about mournable bodies, and it often keeps us from paying proper attention to other, ongoing, instances of horrific carnage around the world: abductions and killings in Mexico, hundreds of children (and more than a dozen journalists) killed in Gaza by Israel last year, internecine massacres in the Central African Republic, and so on. And even when we rightly condemn criminals who claim to act in the name of Islam, little of our grief is extended to the numerous Muslim victims of their attacks, whether in Yemen or Nigeria—in both of which there were deadly massacres this week—or in Saudi Arabia, where, among many violations of human rights, the punishment for journalists who “insult Islam” is flogging. We may not be able to attend to each outrage in every corner of the world, but we should at least pause to consider how it is that mainstream opinion so quickly decides that certain violent deaths are more meaningful, and more worthy of commemoration, than  others.”

As John Donne wrote: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls – it tolls for thee.”

Standard
art of resistance, Israeli - Palestinian conflict

Leila Abdul Razzaq’s Baddawi: Palestinians As Subjects Of Their Own Narratives.

Leila Abdul Razzaq is a young Palestinian-American artist. She’s a talented graphic artist and a great storyteller through images. Her graphic novel, Baddawi, is composed of stories of her father, about his life in a refugee camp in Lebanon where he grew up. Judy Suh made a lovely introduction of Leila and her work in the following video:

Razzaq says she didn’t draw Baddawi because it is a unique story. She did it because it is a common story that is not frequently told. For her, “Baddawi is not a tribute to my father, it is a tribute to displaced Palestinians worldwide. I write this because too often, I see Palestinian refugees (and for that matter, refugees in general) portrayed as objects of suffering to be pitied, defined by circumstance, rather than subjects of their own individual narratives to be empathized with.”

alnaksa01/image via Baddawi/

On Baddawi website, she writes:

“As Palestinians, it is our responsibility to hang on to our heritage and our history, because it’s something that is being erased. We have to take control of our narrative because it is something that is being manipulated. We must maintain our identities as Palestinians in order to fight Zionism and the ethnic cleansing that it produces. For those of is in the shatat (diaspora), it’s not so much an ethnic cleansing that erases us from Palestine, but one in which Palestine is being erased from us.

At the end of the day, power is all about who controls the narratives and the discourse around a particular subject. I’m just another Palestinian trying to take back that narrative.”

firstgrade_1/image via Baddawi/

Razzaq’s Baddawi images are scheduled for publication by Just World Books this spring. Baddawi also has its facebook page, where you can follow the final stages of writing/drawing the book. I am really looking forward to this one!

Standard
art of resistance

The World of Ramin Bahrani: Man Push Cart & Goodbye Solo.

Ramin Bahrani is a truly magical film director (born in North Carolina, USA, to Iranian parents). The world of his films is a world of nighthawks, immigrants, trashy motels, road houses, cabs on call, broken families,  loneliness and unusual friendships. In other words  – welcome to the USA!

Concerning the themes of his films and the general atmosphere of his cinematic work, Bahrani’s USA would be the same USA as that of Tom Waits – poetic, melancholic, an irresistible growling from the streets. Bahrani has made four films so far, and all of his films were highly praised by ciritics and loved by the (indie) audiences, particularly his second film – Chop Shop (a little side note – Roger Ebert listed Chop Shop as the 6th best film of the decade and hailed Bahrani as “the director of the decade“).

Still, that is not to say his other films are less valuable or less wonderful. To prove that, or rather to show my appreciation for Bahrani’s work, I am writing about his first film – Man Push Cart, and the third one – Goodbye Solo, both lovely and heartwarming.

mpc4/Man Push Cart – snapshots/

Man Push Cart is a simple-story film (like all Bahrani’s films) showing a night in the life of a former Pakistani rock star who now sells coffee from his push cart on the streets of Manhattan. Ahmad is a Pakistani immigrant, struggling to drag his heavy cart along the streets of New York to his corner in Midtown Manhattan. Ahmad Razvi is so natural as Ahmad and his story feels so genuine, so real. Ahmad is in a new phase in his life, but it rather feels like a totally new life, where his past is nothing but a series of flashes of a life so distant, of a former-self that he might never get back.

mpc6

He is a stranger – a stranger to this life, a stranger to the city around him. Every day he sells coffee and donuts to a city he cannot call his own. He wonders about his life, but doesn’t lose his mind over it. He seems as a man ready to accept his fate, and whatever tomorrow brings. His calm and lonely ways are presented to us with a background of New York’s darks streets and yellow street lights that speak of poetry with no need for clarification. We feel Ahmad is lonely, even when he bonds with lovely Leticia Dolera who plays a spanish immigrant, but we also feel he is kinda ok with it. Does this speak of his weaknesses, or maybe his wisdom? What is the right way, and is there a right way, a universal one, at all?

mpc2

Throughout the film, the director is always coming back to the image of Ahmad pushing his cart through New York, the perfect illustration of loneliness in an overcrowded place. Brilliant photography helps in creating an atmosphere one inhales and keeps in his/her lungs for a long time after seeing the film. A beautiful experience!

mpc3

Goodbye Solo is the story of two men who form an unlikely friendship. Solo is a Senegalese cab driver working to provide a better life for his young family and William is a tough Southern good ol’ boy with a lifetime of regrets. One man’s American dream is just beginning, while the other’s is falling apart.

gs/Goodbye Solo – snapshots/

Still, their differences aside, both men soon realize they need each other more than either (William more than Solo) is willing to admit. It is a story of friendship, but also a story of America and the ruins of American dream(s). Solo is on a cretain quest to save William (from what is clearly a suicide trip), but is at the same time trying to gain control over his own life, in terms of providing for his family, getting a better job, preparing for a new child and raising his step-daughter.

gs2

He has a big shiny smile (Souleyman Savane is a natural, so great at this role), and is full of dreams for tomorrow, but still – somewhere deep inside, silently, he is fully aware of his position as a second-rate citizen (maybe hoping that the silence will make that fact disappear). On the other hand, William is an old man, always grumpy, with many hardships on his path of life, but still – too bitter for a life that can still offer surprises and inspiring moments.

gs5

In a beautiful and almost seamless blend of the story and photography (once again), Bahrani tells a tale of persistence, but also – of learning to let go. All of that with a spark of mystery, always present in his films, for he is on mission to make us see, but also – make us wonder and keep us wondering.

Standard