Iraq, movie/tv propaganda

How Our Mainstream Media Turned Into The ISIS PR Team.

Turning on the TV, browsing through the news on the internet, even walking on the street… So much repetitive talk about ISIS, all over the place. And yet, so often, I feel like nothing (new) is being said. Like nothing (new) is being learned. What do we even know about ISIS?

In his recent talk with Democracy Now! Patrick Cockburn tried to talk about some of those things we don’t know, and don’t hear about in the mainstream news. Cockburn discussed the funding of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. He said it seems like the Islamic State has much more money than it ought to have. “It’s raised certainly 100,000, and getting on over 200,000, soldiers. They’re all being paid. It’s introduced conscription. It recently lowered the age of conscription below 18. If you join up, you don’t get much. You get $400 a month. If you’re a foreign fighter, you’ll get $800 a month and your keep. But this is a pretty large army they’re putting in the field, and they don’t have many sources of revenue. They have some oil. They have some taxes. So, there’s a great big gap there, which senior Kurdish officials and officials in Baghdad have told me they’re convinced come from private donors in the oil states of the Gulf. That’s the only real explanation for that,” Cockburn said.

9781784780401-35d961c1f3e3af20ab8ad2edc9a7d143/Patrick Cockburn’s book The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution/

In his recent article for The IndependentPrivate donors from Gulf oil states helping to bankroll salaries of up to 100,000 Isis fighters’, Cockburn writes: “There are two further developments to the advantage of Islamic State. Even in the face of the common threat, the leaders in Baghdad and Erbil remain deeply divided. When Mosul fell last year, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki claimed that the Iraqi army had been stabbed in the back by a conspiracy between Kurds and Isis. The two sides remain deeply suspicious of each other and, at the start of last week, a delegation led by the Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani failed to reach an agreement in Baghdad on how much of Iraq’s oil revenues should go to the Kurds in exchange for a previously agreed quantity of oil from Kurdish-held northern oilfields.”

In the interview with Democracy Now! he also talked about the atmosphere in Mosul, saying: “But one should also say two things. One, that the Sunni Arabs in Mosul are very frightened of ISIS, what they call DAESH, of ISIS, but they’re also very frightened of the idea of the Iraqi army or the Shia militias capturing Mosul. So, they don’t really know which way to go. I was talking this morning to some people in a refugee camp here in Erbil who had left Mosul because their parents had been in the Iraqi police force. And what happened was that they had fled Mosul, but then ISIS goes to their houses and blows them up and then puts the video of the explosion on the social media, so the—saying this is a message to even people who have fled, that they’re blowing up their houses (…)

And there’s one other point, a very important one, I’d like to make, which I don’t think people have taken on board. As you know, that the U.S. government, the Pentagon and the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, have said there’s going to be an offensive to capture Mosul. But the major relief organizations, the World Food Program, believe that if there’s an attack on Mosul, there’s going to be an exodus of up to a million refugees, of basically the Sunni Arabs who live in Mosul, that they’re going to flee the city when airstrikes intensify and they believe it’s going to come under attack. At the moment, they couldn’t get into the Kurdish region. They’re banned. So they’re all going to be on the road. So, they’re pre-positioning supplies for one of the biggest exodus of refugees that we’ve seen, I don’t know for how long. But it’s going to be massive. There’s going to be terrible suffering, and many will die.”

Cockburn briefly reflected on Turkey’s (possible) role in the ongoing conflicts: “Yeah, I mean, there are about or said to be 20,000 foreign jihadis who have gone to the Islamic State. One of the amazing things is that they’re still quite easily able to cross the Turkish frontier into Syria to—into the Islamic State, despite the fact that Turkey is meant to be part of the coalition to eliminate the Islamic State. But there’s a 500-mile border between Syria and Turkey, and it still seems to be generally open.

What I find as one of his most important points is that the Islamic State is very obsessed with the idea of dominating the news agenda, and it doesn’t really matter how they do it. After months of seeing videos of executions, libraries burning and statues smashing in prime time news hours, we can all agree with that point. “So they know that if you have a Japanese hostage and you demand $200 million ransom, that that’s going to be leading the news. For a long time, cutting off people’s heads led the news. Then that—people became used to that, so they burn to death this Jordanian pilot in a cage, knowing again that will dominate the news, will be assertion of their strength. And they do that particularly when they’ve had a military setback. When things aren’t going too well on the battlefront, they want the news to be dominated by some assertion of power on their part, which may be a hideous atrocity, usually is, but they feel they’ve achieved their aim if that’s what everybody’s talking about. They said at one moment on their social media that media is half jihad. So it’s something they do very consciously, and it’s something they use, particularly foreigners entering the Islamic State, as a method of publicity,” Cockburn explained.

It makes one think – should media stop covering ISIS stories, stop covering them the way it did so far? Because, so far (with some great and notable exceptions like Democracy Now!, Independent’s Cockburn and Fisk, just to name a few), media coverage suited ISIS’s agenda. Showing videos of executions. Statues smashing. Libraries burning. People burning. And that would be it, maybe a sentence or two of comment (with words like outrage, brutality, evil), a sentence or two about the references made to the prophet and Islam, sentence or two of some superficial analysis of the situation, a sentence or two of some additional ‘facts’. We get to know so little about the general situation on the ground, about the funding and the organizing of the fighters, about the various interests tangled in this story, about the background stories and issues. I don’t know if that is intentional, it might be. One thing I am certain of – the mainstream public, the average viewers, the ‘regular people’ – we get to know only the things ISIS serves us. Is that journalism? No, it isn’t. Our main media outlets are basically ISIS PR teams.

• • •

For more on ISIS, I recommend reading Patrick Cockburn’s book The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution. I hope to review this book and write more about ISIS sometime soon.

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Libya

Libya: A Story Forgotten.

Libya. A story forgotten. In Bedtime Reading for the Unborn Child, Libyan poet Khaled Mattawa writes: “Night girl, night girl/your book is full now/You have drawn all the pictures/You have seen many weepers.”

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Unfortunately, it seems like it is still not time for dawn in Libya. The country was destroyed by a war prosecuted by NATO, and the wreckage is now more visible than ever. I went through the photos Magnum’s photographer Michael Christopher Brown took during the Libyan civil war in 2011. The paradoxes and ironies of these photos are so bitter and obvious, as I am reading news from Libya now, four years later.

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Gaddafi’s death (the killing of Gaddafi) didn’t bring freedom. And it didn’t bring peace. NATO’s intervention in Libya was not, as many have praised it, a humanitarian success. It wasn’t, as it was hailed, a ‘model intervention’. It was a boomerang that came back to beat up the people of Libya.

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Libya’s civil war continued, and the number of victimis (tens of thousands of civilians) continues to grow to this day. This so praised intervention was a model of failure (as most of the interventions are). We now know that Gaddafi did not initiate Libya’s violence by targeting peaceful protesters. The United Nations and Amnesty International have documented that in all four Libyan cities initially consumed by civil conflict in mid-February 2011—Benghazi, Al Bayda, Tripoli, and Misurata—violence was actually initiated by the protesters.

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That is not to say that Gaddafi didn’t have his sins and his share of wrongdoings. But NATO’s main goal in Libya was not protecting civilians, it was not ‘justice, finally’. Its primary aim was to overthrow Gaddafi’s regime, even at the expense of increasing the harm to Libyans. And that is what happened.

NYC136529Libya is now a true victim of the Arab Cold War, where the regional entities are utilizing Libya as a battleground for their own particular policy, whether it’s Saudi Arabia and Egypt, on one side, or Turkey and Qatar, on the other. And now – the western governments remain silent. The American Embassy is no longer in Libya, it is in Malta. Not our business anymore.

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The two competing governments in Libya are mainly fighting about oil, of course. The people of Libya are left to wander in the dark abyss, forgotten and ignored by their government(s) and by the international community.

NYC136549It’s a state of total chaos. Radical Islamist groups, which were suppressed under Gaddafi, emerged as the fiercest rebels during the war. And it is not just Libya. Mali, which previously had been the region’s exceptional example of peace (and democracy) went through many changes. After Gaddafi’s defeat, his ethnic Tuareg soldiers of Malian descent fled home and launched a rebellion in their country’s north, prompting the Malian army to overthrow the president. In 2012, the northern half of Mali had become ‘the largest territory controlled by Islamic extremists in the world,’ according to the chairman ofthe U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Africa.

NYC136560And now we have ISIL. The whole MENA region changed drastically. Libya, Syria, Iraq, Egypt… You name it. As Riverbend wrote: “When will things improve? When will be able to live normally? How long will it take?” These questions, asked by the ‘regular’ people, the biggest victims of all the conflicts that ever took place on this great Earth, are met with silence.

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The silence, once again, drowns the screams. And peace? Peace is a dream buried by the indifference.

//all photos © Michael Christopher Brown/Magnum Photos, Libyan Civil War 2011//

• • •

For more on Libya, I recommend reading Alan J. Kuperman’s Lessons From Libya: How Not to Intervene.

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art of resistance, Syria

Zaher Omareen: A Bedtime Story For Eid.

I recently wrote about the Hama massacre, marking thirty-three years since it had happened. This month, to pay respect to the victims of that horrible event that took place in February of 1982, I am sharing one more story. It is Zaher Omareen’s tale A Bedtime Story For Eid. Zaher Omareen is a Syrian writer who is currently completing Tales of the Orontes River, a collection of short stories drawn from the collective memories of the 1982 Hama massacre. A Bedtime Story For Eid is one of those stories (translation by Alice Guthrie).

pop/Hama massacre, photo via NPR/

—So he gave you a kiss, and wished you a happy Eid, and said ‘Send my love to your Mom?’ My God, what a good memory that guy’s got! Yeah, those guys used to live over at al-Tawafra, right near al-Kaylaneya. You know where I mean, don’t you? Al-Tawafra was your grandparents’ old neighborhood, actually.

—Yeah, I know—but al-Kaylaneya? Where’s that?

—Hmm, al-Kaylaneya, you kids are too young to remember it, aren’t you? Well, it’s like—where would it be now? It was more or less that whole area from where the Afamia Hotel is now, all the way across to the street on the right of the bridge, yeah—opposite the Saba’ al-Arab family orchard. You know that bit of scrubland where you all play football? That used to be part of the al-Kaylaneya neighborhood.

—What, were there houses there before, then? Was it not always empty?

—Of course there were—there was a waterwheel there, too, and the al-Kaylani family palace, and one of those old zawiyas, you know, a traditional tomb shrine—but all that’s long gone, it’s just bare earth there now . . .. And no one dares build on that land—it was seized by the regime and became state property. Your Granny’s dear friend Um Omara used to live right by there. That poor woman’s got such a story: during The Events they came for her kids, they took all three of them—and those boys were all so lovely, such beautiful lads . . . One was in high school, one was just about to graduate from the Faculty of Business at the Uni, and the eldest was a mechanical engineer—his name was Omar.

—The one we read al-Fatiha for at the cemetery today? Was it his grave we prayed over?

—Yep, that’s him, that’s Omar. That man’s really got a story . . ..  After The Events happened, Um Omara nearly lost her mind, trying to find out whether her sons had survived or been executed; of course in those days absolutely no one dared to ask the authorities what had happened to their children, or where they were. A few years after The Events, news reached Um Omara that her two younger sons had passed away in al-rush—someone had been there when they were martyred, had seen it all happen, and told her about it . . .  so she knew it was definitely true.

But she wasn’t able to find out anything at all about her eldest son, Omar. Now, Um Omara, may she rest in peace, was a God-fearing woman! I still remember—I must’ve been about fourteen then, I would’ve been in the ninth grade or so—she used to come round to your granny’s a lot, and I remember how she always used to say to her, ‘My heart doesn’t lie, Hajja: I can feel it—something tells me Omar’s still alive.’ She had this sense about it and it didn’t let her rest.

Anyway, eventually some kind people put her in touch with this man who supposedly had proper security force connections—he was meant to be getting news of people’s kids for them, apparently, letting them know where they were being held, maybe even how they were doing and all that. So she went to meet him and asked him about her son. He said to her ‘For 200,000 Syrian pounds I can tell you if he’s dead or alive.’  Um Omara was a widow in her fifties: she was hard up, she had always lived off her relatives. But—ya haram—a mother’s heart . . ..

She sold her house in Bashoura, in the Old City, to raise some cash—but she only got peanuts for it, you know, this was some time in the mid-nineties; she bought a tiny flat in the suburbs to live in, and then gave that guy all the money she had, the whole lot, so he’d get news of her son for her. And from then on he started getting more and more money out of Um Omara—she sold off all the furniture from her old house, which was that proper original pearl inlay stuff, real quality, and then she sold her gold jewelry, and then when all that was gone she started borrowing money to pay him, running up debts….

But he just kept on stalling, for ages, until in the end she found out he was nothing but a crook, some security services bullshitter with no inside access to prison records at all—and eventually he disappeared: no one ever saw him again.

Time passed, seasons came and went, as they do; after several years—I don’t know how many—a little group of prisoners were let out. Now, as you know, the custom, whenever someone was released from prison, was that everyone in Hama would go and see them, to greet them and welcome them back and all that—offering their blessings, really, on their return—but also, of course, to ask them about their disappeared children: Had they seen them? Were they incarcerated with them? Where were they being held? Are they OK? Are they alive?

One of the prisoners released in this particular little group told Um Omara that Omar had been held with him for a while in Tadmor prison, but that he’d been taken out of their cell two days before The Tadmor Events. He said they’d taken Omar away naked . . . This guy had managed to keep Omar’s shirt the whole rest of the time he was in prison, and he had it with him. He said to Um Omara ‘I think your son must have passed away . . .  because that was right before they shot hundreds of prisoners right there in the yard, my God, I don’t even know how many . . .’ And sure enough he handed her Omar’s shirt, and she just knew straight away it was her son’s—a mother’s heart, you see, Son? There’s nothing like it.

—Really?

—Absolutely. She didn’t doubt the news for a minute. And so the next day she opened up her house for three days of mourning, with her son’s shirt on display for everyone to see. I’ve never forgotten the sight of that tattered, faded blue shirt hanging from the middle of the sitting room ceiling on an old wooden hanger. The women all poured into the little flat for the wake, praying for Um Omara’s sanity, saying things like ‘God protect Um Omara from what her mind must endure.’ Anyway, after the three days of mourning, Um Omara took the shirt to the Sreheen cemetery and buried it and had a proper stone tomb made, with flower beds and a headstone and everything. She wanted somewhere she could go to remember her son, poor woman, she was heartbroken, destroyed, really . . .. And from then on she went to that grave every single Thursday and read the Quran over it, put flowers on it, and watered the plants growing there . . . until, about a year or so later, the force of her grief and pain overwhelmed her and she passed away.

She’d only been dead a year when another batch of prisoners were released—and guess who was let out with them this time?

—Who?

—Omar!

—What are you talking about?!

—It’s true, honestly—he came out alive! And they let him out after he’d done something like twenty years inside. It turned out that when he was moved out of that cell the other prisoner’d told Um Omara about, just before The Tadmor Events, they actually took him to the Palestine Branch of the Security Services.

—And then what? What happened to him after that?!

—I’m getting to that, hang on! That poor man . . .  when he finally got let out it was the middle of the night—cos they only ever used to release anyone from prison in the small hours, the real dead of night. The state security agents took him back to his old family home and dumped him there outside the door. Poor old thing, he sat there on the doorstep for hours, until the dawn call to prayer sounded—he didn’t dare knock at the door and frighten his family. When the azan sang out, the new owner of the house got out of bed to go to the mosque; when he opened his front door he found a stranger sitting there on the step. He thought he was a beggar, and he gave him five Syrian pounds. But apparently at that Omar just burst into tears and cried like a little child. So the man asked him his name, and he knew straight away who he was.

—How? How come he knew about him?

—Son, everybody knows everybody in Hama—and everybody knows everybody’s stories! You know how the old saying goes. ‘Mother gathers the family together and keeps them close.’ Well, in Hama it’s more like ‘Misery gathers the community together and keeps them close.’ But also, when Um Omara did that full mourning ceremony for the shirt, everyone talked about it, even more than usual—she became an exemplar of suffering, somehow.

So anyway, the owner of the house rang Omar’s relations right away! And the aunts and uncles, whoever was left of his extended family by then, all came to get him and took him to their place and bit by bit they filled him in on what’d happened to his family. Eventually he had to take in that the old house in Tawafra was gone, his Mom was dead, his brothers were dead—and that even he, himself, was supposedly dead!

Well, as usual, the good people of the city really rallied round—someone found him a place to live, someone sorted out a job for him, someone helped him with his medical stuff . . .. My auntie Um Ibrahim used to really love Um Omara, God rest her soul, and she had a young daughter called Samiha—she got pregnant with her when she was already quite old, actually—and anyway she offered Omar her hand in marriage.

And you see, thank goodness, how life moves on, Samiha bore Omar a lovely little daughter who they named Rajaa, after his mother—but everyone in the neighborhood and all the relations always just call her Um Omara!

And poor old Omar, bless him, once things were a bit more sorted out and settled for him, he started doing what his mother used to do: every Thursday, still, he visits his mother’s grave, and puts myrtle on it—and as he’s passing, he waters the plants on his own grave, too.

—And where is he now?

—What do you mean ‘Where is he now?!’ He’s that guy who gave you a kiss today, in the cemetery, and told you to send his love to your Mom. He still remembers me—he used to walk me and my sisters to school when we were in primary.

—Oh, I see! But wait, why do they call his Mom Um Omara, as if she was the mother of a woman called Omara, which isn’t even a real name? Shouldn’t they call her Um Omar?

—Well, according to your granny, when Omar was born, he was such a beautiful little baby that everyone thought he was a girl! So his mother got called Um Omara instead of Um Omar, and it stuck . . ..

Right, come on now love, bedtime, yalla, off you go—tomorrow’s the second day of Eid and we’re going to your Granddad’s for breakfast.

• • •

For more on Zaher Omareen and this story, go to Words Without Borders.

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art of resistance, Israeli - Palestinian conflict

Zakaria Mohammad: Is This Home?

The following is an excerpt from Zakaria Mohammads Is this Home?, translated from the Arabic by Michael K. Scott. It is a story of Mohammad’s return to Palestine after decades spent in exile.

tumblr_n0m7k6wfob1rouua1o7_r1_1280/The Bearer Of Burdens, Sliman Mansour/

In the days prior to my return I had decided to assume a cool demeanor and contemplate my country as a tourist might, and not as a rapturous and homesick returnee. I wanted to hold the moment in my hands, examine it, and write up the experience. And I wanted to minimize, to the extent possible, any emotional entaglement on my part, so that I could see things clearly. I’ve gotten tired of emotional entanglement… My entire life has been full of that. Now I am an old man who wants to see things clearly with a neutral eye. Yes, I want to be as cold and dry as a stone, if I can.

Then I got to the bridge that connects one bank of the river to the other. I arrived, and ended up on the other side. I came away from the bridge with my blood boiling. Five hours of interrogations and closed rooms with the Israeli secret police seemed to have injected poison into my veins, and obliterated all of the happy scenarios I had constructed for the moment of my return. For the Israelis, these hours were needed so that each and every returnee would understand the truth they wanted understood: you are coming to place yourself under our heel. This is the supreme truth, and everything else follows from it.

I was unable to act like a tourist who sees things with an indifferent eye. I was unable to act like a returnee overcome with yearning and joy. I was unable to tak ein the views or the scenery clearly. I had no ability to contemplate and enjoy, nor to observe or critique my feelings. It took me a few hours in Jericho before I could regain a bit of my composure.

Then we sett of from Jericho. The plam trees on my right provided pleasing company. I found joy in them, until our guide informed us that the Israelis owned all of the plam groves. We walked on, our little flock shimmering ahead like a mirage, stopping only at the Israeli checkpoints.

There was with us a man who had reached, or nearly reached, his old age. He was returning after forty years of absence. All he had lef in the homeland was a married sister in Talouza. He was afraid that this sister might not recognize him, and not acknowledge that he was her brother. She might refuse to receive him. His thinking was beyond me. How could a sister shut the door on her brother, whom she has not seen in decades? The thought seemed ludicrous to me, but the man was afriad it would happen. He wanted us to wait for him until he knew his sister’s reaction, and that of her husband. We didn’t have time to wait. Every one of us wanted to see his mother and family. So we went our way. We left him knocking on his sister’s door, hesitant and in trepidation.

The family home consisted of two concrete rooms whose doors close only at bedtime. There, on my arrival, my sister cried, while my father seemed to be only semiconscious, thinking of the days long gone by, and of the death that hovers around him. As for my mother, she smiled. But her smile seemed to be carrying some illness – some effort to forget – that I could not yet understand. The reunion was no bolt of lightning. I was weightless.

The first days passed in the rush of greetings and hugs. But gradually the war between memory and reality broke out, in my mind.

In exile we lived in memory, and on it. Memory would devour us. It gave us vitality, and it adorned the goal, the purpose of our exile. It would grow and expand, merging with truth and delusion. It had its own routine. It would conjure up a scene from the past for me, whenever and however it wished. We would play together. Memory and I were twins.

So here’s my memory going round and round, like an ant that can’t find its hole after some miscreant hand had messed up the path, the sand and the scent. This is my memory: a lost ant in churned-up sand. Since she can’t stay in this condition – running around in circles – forever, she began on her own to dig a new hole in the ground. And the new hole in the ground? It was my exile. She is working with everything she has to construct and anthill to replace the one that was smashed. She finds her subject, and her self, in exile. Is this home then? Is it ‘home’ for memory to be forced to transform exile into being her ‘thing’, instead of home?”

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Afghanistan, art of resistance

(Interview) Janus Metz Pedersen: War Is Like a Drug.

Janus Metz Pedersen is a Danish director known for the remarkable documentary Armadillo. It is a film about a group of Danish soldiers at Armadillo, an army base in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. Above all – it is a film about the chaos of war, both internal and external, about the mind games soldiers play in silence, and the spells of black magic that catch their shadows everywhere they go.

The film had a strong impact on me, and the least I could do was to discuss it with the director – Janus Metz Pederson.

Janus_Metz_credit_Robin_Skjoldborg/Janus Metz Pederson© Lorber Films / Photo: Robin Skjoldborg/

Armadillo is a film that, I imagine, was a real challenge in terms of preparations and expectations. No matter how well one is prepared, war  is something hard to prepare for and conflict areas always manage to surprise. What were the great differences (if there were any) between the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and your preparations in Denmark?

There were two preparations that I went through. I had to prepare myself, and prepare the film, in terms of grasping what the film was about. Preparing myself and preparing the film was sometimes part of the same process. I figured the best way to do that was to go and embed myself with the troops, to grasp the experience of the soldier. I did a lot of research, talked with the soldiers that were in Afghanistan, but also to Afghans I knew, to get a view of the conflict from a different perspective. I tried to immerse myself in the military culture and analyze how that affects the war. I did a lot of training with soldiers and tried to get to know them personally. I think of myself as an anthropologist filmmaker, I like to stand beside the characters, go through the process with them, and observe what they are doing. I particularly pay attention to emotion, to be able to tell it and film it.

About the differences on the ground – the thing is, you can never prepare for what’s happening on the ground, there has to be a level of stupidity or naivety in you to go out there and do it. You know, I’m not a war reporter, I’m more of an artist, an anthropologist. It was like, in a way, I got into the job, did the preparation and just couldn’t turn back and not do it.  I think that’s what happens to a lot of soldiers too. I mean, you go through this whole process – you have to write a farewell letter to your family, settle your scores before leaving. In that sense, I was forced to deal with a lot of personal issues that I wouldn’t usually deal with. Suddenly, your relationships become very important, the world around you becomes important, because you have to say goodbye to it. There is at the same time this myth of importance, the feeling you are a part of something big and you can go on and do it now. It’s almost like a soldier is a character with a death wish, with a desire to feel the world here and now, liberated from his old ties. So the whole preparation and the experience on the ground offered a lot of challenges and interesting insights for me personally and for the film.

armadillo_9/Mads in Armadillo© Lorber Films / Photo: Lars Skree/

In relation to the  film, I was surprised to see how young most of the soldiers were, and I also had a feeling they came from relatively safe background (financially). Generally speaking, a lot of the soldiers deployed to Afghanistan choose to go on missions because of the money, and in the US – the idea of ‘defenfing ourselves’, but what was the motivation of these Danish soldiers? From the film, I get a feeling that a lot of them did it out of the need for ‘adventure’. From your experience, living and filming among them – what is, at the end of it all – the main reason these young soldiers had for going to Afghanistan?

I think a lot of it has to do with my life has a purpose thing, although it may not be expressed by soldiers in such a way. They also did it for political reasons, there was a feeling of ‘defending ourselves’ in Denmark too, a feeling of fighting for a better world, but I always feel like that is almost an excuse, or just a surface layer of reasoning. I don’t think money is a high drive, although you can earn good money that way. A lot of the soldiers come from low middle class families with lower level of education, but I still wouldn’t think of money as the main reason for going on these missions. There are also career reasons, a lot of these young men wanted a career in military, and this was one important step towards it. There is also a great level of friendship and comradeship in these circumstances and that is appealing to many. Above that all, I feel like in the Western world, war has become something like an identity quest, an identity travel you undertake as a young person. In the 90’s everybody used to go backpacking, and now they go to war. It’s this desire for close to death experience. Have you noticed how nobody does bungee jumping anymore?  They search for adrenaline in other places.

From my experience on the ground I can tell you that soldiers are not politicians, and they don’t dwell on politics too much, or at all. They were given a good reason to be there, in their minds, and from that point onwards there’s a lot of parroting, a lot of mimicking of what someone else had said.

The film was criticized in Denmark for its portrayal of some of the soldiers and their behavior in combat. Where you suprised by that and, reflecting back, what would you say about the criticism you received?

Doing the film, I was prepared for the big debate, I knew the film would be taken apart. Most of the criticism can be summed up in one sentence: You haven’t filmed all the good things we do. But a lot of the so-called good things are fragile, unsustainable. Armadillo is about the psychological dynamic this war creates, about mistrust, about resistance to the occupation, about all those things. The political arguments were an expression of spin politics, right-wing parties were very clever about it – they said Armadillo was great because it showed how difficult being in the war is and we must remember difficulties of those who serve, but also remember that – they are doing it for the ‘higher purpose’. The film was a shock to the nation, it really was. It think it was the most discussed film in Denmark ever probably. But, all in all, that is good, because the debate about the war in Afghanistan was necessary.

Since ISAF entered Afghanistan, Denmark has been a committed and loyal coalition partner. The year 2014 marked the 17th rotation and final deployment to Afghanistan for DANCON. Since their first mission began, more than 18,000 Danish soldiers have deployed to the country. Throughout their deployments in Afghanistan, 43 soldiers were killed in action. Could you talk about the opinion of the Danish public about this mission and how has it changed since Armadillo was made?

A lot of things have changed, I think there is an understanding now that this war was not our victory. We have war veterans in Denmark now, for the first time after 19th century, and we have to learn to deal with that reality. When the film came out Afghanistan was a good war, Iraq was a bad war. Political climate was different, there was no place for criticism of the war in Afghanistan. Soldiers serving in Afghanistan were perceived as an extened version of ourselves, as the ones doing the dirty job for us. It has changed with time, we had to retreat, and discuss the war in-depth. That is what Armadillo did – we explored the true nature of war, and I am not saying we did it perfectly but I think we did help in starting the debate and the reflection process.

Armadillo is beautifully filmed, visually polished, with many striking images. Were you afraid of that aspect – of making it so beautiful aesthetically? It makes me think of one of Banksy’s anecdotes – he remembered how an old Palestinian man said his painting made the wall look beautiful. Banksy thanked him, only to be told: “We don’t want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall. Go home.” Were you afraid of getting a similiar reaction?

Yes, I understand that fear. You don’t want war to look beautiful, but in a scary way it is beautiful. I mean that in terms of all the darkness, the heart of darkness you can explore. I wanted to use all the filmmaking tools available to present this war story, not just the obvious level of it, but all the deeper ones, the levels of the unsaid. I wanted to use all the artistic tools to get to that deeper level. I also wanted to transcend the usual presentation of war. Making the film visually beautiful provided even a greater shock in some of the horrible situations like seeing a shooting and dead bodies. All that ugliness stood out more when it was put in this polished frame, it offered us to give a crack and the audiences to see that crack, to witness the dichotomy. That was our way of mediating the war to people.

armadillo6/Armadillo© Lorber Films / Photo: Lars Skree/

From the interviews I did with war veterans, it was always surprising that they wanted to go back, most of them. One would think that, after witnessing all the horrors of war, they would never want to go back, but – just like in Armadillo – they do. Why do you think that is the case?

It’s one of the first things that started puzzling me… When I talked with some of the older soldiers about their experiences, they often said it was the best time of their life. Some of them have seen horrible things, but they still said they would do it again. I think it has a lot to do with that purpose of life thing, I think it made them feel their lives have higher meanings. I think they were longing to feel alive. Also, when you are a soldier, life is really simple. You’re told what to do, you have the same routine every day, you are a part of intense comradeship, and for many – it is a satisfying life. Even I, as a filmmaker, miss it sometimes. It’s just that intense. I think it also has a lot to do with some of our primal instincts, it’s like a drug in a way.

Finally, what are you doing at the moment, and what are some of your plans for future projects?

I recently came back from LA, I was directing one of the episodes of the second season of True Detective. I am soon going to Thailand to work on a documentary, which is actually a continuation of the two films I did – Love on Delivery and Tickets to Paradise, which deal with prostitution, sex industry and migration. My wish with this documentary is to see what happened to those people and around them, to do a character study over a ten year period (Love on Delivery was made eight years ago).

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art of resistance, India

The Book To Read: Sea Of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh.

Sea of Poppies is a historical novel about 1830’s India, in the midst of blossoming of the opium trade. I’ve been reading a lot about the opium trade these last couple of months, particularly about Afghanistan (I also wrote about it a little), so Sea of Poppies served as my time machine, a ticket to 19th century opium trade. Although this is a novel, Amitav Ghosh did a remarkable amount of research to provide a credible portrayal of the period. That is, to me, the biggest achievement of this book.

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Reading about opium trade, I still don’t know what to make of it, is it a good thing, bad thing, can we really moralize about it, how do we deal with people dependent on it, people whose only income comes from the opium trade… This novel deals with the complex moral questions of the opium trade in an emphathetic way, it provides context, immersing in true motivations and needs. Ghosh writes:

“It was a single poppy seed…she rolled it between her fingers and raised her eyes past the straining sails, to the star-filled vault above. On any other night she would have scanned the sky for the planet she had always thought to be the arbiter of her fate – but tonight her eyes dropped instead to the tiny sphere she was holding between her thumb and forefinger. She looked at the seed as if she had never seen one before, and suddenly she knew that it was not the planet above that governed her life: it was this minuscule orb – at once bountiful and all-devouring, merciful and destructive, sustaining and vengeful. This was her Shani, her Saturn.”

Sea of Poppies is the first book of Ibis trilogy. Ibis , a vast ship, is at the heart of this saga. Its destiny is to sail across the Indian Ocean, to fight China’s vicious nineteenth-century Opium Wars. The Ibis crew is as diverse as it can be – sailors and stowaways, coolies and convicts, bankrupt raja and French oprhan, Indians and Westerners…

“Sometimes, the lascars would gather between the bows to listen to the stories of the greybeards. There was the steward, Cornelius Pinto: a grey-haired Catholic, from Goa, he claimed to have been around the world twice, sailing in every kind of ship, with every kind of sailor – including Finns, who were known to be the warlocks and wizards of the sea, capable of conjuring up winds with a whistle.”

When they board Ibis, they must leave their history behind and became ship-brothers. In this story about colonialism, the characters are just as diverse as the British Empire itself, each with their own dialects and idiosyncracies. The language Ghosh uses is too old school and uptight for my taste but it is very much in spirit with the time described. Although dialects add to the authenticity of the voices of the characters, emphasizing  dialects was distracting at times, almost a little annoying. That was one of my problems with the novel.

Another problem is the overly black and white portrayal of some of the characters. The British are represented by Ghosh as unsymptathetic buffoons, which is understandable, taking in consideration the colonial context. Still, at times it is almost like a caricature. It could be intentional, of course, for they are not to be liked, but I think there were more subtle and nuanced ways of showing the cruelty and ignorance of colonizers. It could have provided a deeper criticism, and this way – I don’t feel like Ghosh says anything new (in relation to colonizers).

Those were some of my issues with this novel, but I would still recommend it, for it offers a great historical insight into an interesting and very much defining period of time for India and for the opium trade.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

Late For Tea At The Dear Palace 

A Sky So Close by Betool Kheadiri

My Happiness Bears No Relation To Happiness

Suad Amiry & The Absurdity of Life Under Occupation

and more.

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art of resistance, India

Arundhati Roy: There’s A Lot Of Money In Poverty.

The following is an excerpt from Arundhati Roy’s great new book, Capitalism: A Ghost Story (Haymarket Books, 2014).

ARUNDHATI ROY/Arundhati Roy, photo via anniepaul.net/

By the 1920s US capitalism had begun to look outward for raw materials and overseas markets. Foundations began to formulate the idea of global corporate governance. In 1924 the Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations jointly created what is today the most powerful foreign policy pressure group in the world—the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), which later came to be funded by the Ford Foundation as well. By 1947 the newly created CIA was supported by and working closely with the CFR. Over the years the CFR’s membership has included twenty-two US secretaries of state. There were five CFR members in the 1943 steering committee that planned the United Nations, and an $8.5 million grant from J. D. Rockefeller bought the land on which the United Nations’ New York headquarters stands.

All eleven of the World Bank’s presidents since 1946—men who have presented themselves as missionaries to the poor—have been members of the CFR. (The exception was George Woods. And he was a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation and vice president of Chase Manhattan Bank.)

At Bretton Woods, the World Bank and IMF decided that the US dollar should be the reserve currency of the world, and that in order to enhance the penetration of global capital it would be necessary to universalize and standardize business practices in an open marketplace. It is toward that end that they spend a large amount of money promoting Good Governance (as long as they control the strings), the concept of the Rule of Law (provided they have a say in making the laws), and hundreds of anticorruption programs (to streamline the system they have put in place). Two of the most opaque, unaccountable organizations in the world go about demanding transparency and accountability from the governments of poorer countries.

Given that the World Bank has more or less directed the economic policies of the Third World, coercing and cracking open the market of country after country for global finance, you could say that corporate philanthropy has turned out to be the most visionary business of all time.

Corporate-endowed foundations administer, trade, and channel their power and place their chessmen on the chessboard through a system of elite clubs and think tanks, whose members overlap and move in and out through the revolving doors. Contrary to the various conspiracy theories in circulation, particularly among left-wing groups, there is nothing secret, satanic, or Freemason-like about this arrangement. It is not very different from the way corporations use shell companies and offshore accounts to transfer and administer their money—except that the currency is power, not money.

The transnational equivalent of the CFR is the Trilateral Commission, set up in 1973 by David Rockefeller, the former US national security adviser Zbignew Brzezinski (founder-member of the Afghan mujahidin, forefathers of the Taliban), the Chase Manhattan Bank, and some other private eminences. Its purpose was to create an enduring bond of friendship and cooperation between the elites of North America, Europe, and Japan. It has now become a pentalateral commission, because it includes members from China and India (Tarun Das of the CII; N. R. Narayana Murthy, ex-CEO of Infosys; Jamsheyd N. Godrej, managing director of Godrej; Jamshed J. Irani, director of Tata Sons; and Gautam Thapar, CEO of Avantha Group).

The Aspen Institute is an international club of local elites, businessmen, bureaucrats, and politicians, with franchises in several countries. Tarun Das is the president of the Aspen Institute, India. Gautam Thapar is chairman. Several senior officers of the McKinsey Global Institute (proposer of the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor) are members of the CFR, the Trilateral Commission, and the Aspen Institute.

The Ford Foundation (liberal foil to the more conservative Rockefeller Foundation, though the two work together constantly) was set up in 1936. Though it is often underplayed, the Ford Foundation has a very clear, well-defined ideology and works extremely closely with the US State Department. Its project of deepening democracy and ‘good governance’ is very much part of the Bretton Woods scheme of standardizing business practice and promoting efficiency in the free market. After the Second World War, when communists replaced fascists as the US Government’s Enemy Number One, new kinds of institutions were needed to deal with the Cold War. Ford funded RAND (Research and Development Corporation), a military think tank that began with weapons research for the US defense services. In 1952, to thwart ‘the persistent Communist effort to penetrate and disrupt free nations,’ it established the Fund for the Republic, which then morphed into the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, whose brief was to wage the Cold War intelligently, without McCarthyite excesses. It is through this lens that we need to view the work that the Ford Foundation is doing with the millions of dollars it has invested in India—its funding of artists, filmmakers, and activists, its generous endowment of university courses and scholarships.

The Ford Foundation’s declared ‘goals for the future of mankind’ include interventions in grassroots political movements locally and internationally. In the United States it provided millions in grants and loans to support the credit union movement that was pioneered by the department store owner Edward Filene in 1919. Filene believed in creating a mass consumption society of consumer goods by giving workers affordable access to credit—a radical idea at the time. Actually, only half of a radical idea, because the other half of what Filene believed in was a more equitable distribution of national income. Capitalists seized on the first half of Filene’s suggestion and, by disbursing ‘affordable’ loans of tens of millions of dollars to working people, turned the US working class into people who are permanently in debt, running to catch up with their lifestyles.

Many years later, this idea has trickled down to the impoverished countryside of Bangladesh when Mohammed Yunus and the Grameen Bank brought microcredit to starving peasants with disastrous consequences. The poor of the subcontinent have always lived in debt, in the merciless grip of the local village usurer—the Baniya. But microfinance has corporatized that too. Microfinance companies in India are responsible for hundreds of suicides—two hundred people in Andhra Pradesh in 2010 alone. A national daily recently published a suicide note by an eighteen-year-old girl who was forced to hand over her last 150 rupees, her school fees, to bullying employees of the microfinance company. The note read, ‘Work hard and earn money. Do not take loans.’

There’s a lot of money in poverty, and a few Nobel Prizes too.”

• • •

For more Arundhati Roy wisdom, see:

Arundhati Roy: The President Took The Salute

Arundhati Roy: Feminism & Foundations, Burkas & Botox

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art of resistance

Middle East Revised: A Year Of Writing & A Thank You Note.

WordPress says it’s been year since I created Middle East Revised, so today is MER’s first birthday! I am not big on my own birthday celebrations, but this birthday I really wanted to celebrate. I even baked a cake. I am serious. Here is a photo.

IMG_3560 (Medium)/I wish I could share it with you/

It’s been a long year. I actually can’t believe only a year passed since I started writing this blog, because it became such an important part of my everyday life. It wasn’t easy to post regularly and to keep a decent level of quality of the content, since most of my time is spent working to earn a living, and my time for writing is usually late in the evening or early in the morning. But I managed to do it. Because I want to do it. I hope one day I will have more time and money to be able to fully dedicate myself to writing and journalism. This whole year, with most of my free time dedicated to reading, writing and posting here, as exhausting as it was at certain times, made it absolutely clear that writing (about Middle East) is what I want to do.  So I’ll just continue doing that.

Here are some of my ♡ favourite posts, a ☼ thank you note and a little bit of ✍ statistics (for those who believe in numbers).

Favourite posts

Favourite Remembering… Sessions: There were a lot of people I wanted to remember this year, so Remembering… sessions ended up as a long list. I particularly enjoyed remembering Edward Said, Pablo Neruda, Nadia Anjuman, Howard Zinn, Rachel Corrie and Camille Lepage.

Favourite The Book To Read: My Happiness Bears no Relation to Happiness by Adina Hoffman. I read a lot of great books throughout the year and wrote about them in The Book To Read section, but Hoffman’s biography of the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali was just so mesmerizing and grand – I couldn’t stop think about if for months. So – I really enjoyed writing that review.

Favourite Interview: Each interview I did was special and favourite in some aspects of it, but – if I would have to choose one, I would choose the interview I did with Matthew Hoh. We discussed some really heavy topics – from the issues veterans face in the USA to ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Favourite Film Review: I enjoyed writing about the films of Ramin Bahrani. I think his work is pure magic. Also, when talking about films – I would have to add two interviews I did – the first is the one I did with Tamara Erde, French-Israeli filmmaker. Her  films are truly eye-opening and I highly recommend following her work. The second is Ian Ebright, with whom I did an interview about his film From The Sky (a short film about a humble father and his son who live in a region frequently targeted by drone strikes).

Favourite Art of Resistance: There’s so much in this category, it makes it really hard to choose. I will try to name only few of the articles that first come to my mind: Manuscripts don’t burn: Al-Mutanabbi Street, Bahgdad and Al-Mutanabbi Street and the Healing Power of Poetry, Rashid Hussein: The Tortured Soul & a Poet Star of PalestineDear Gaza, I’m Sorry, Syria – What Remains, Ara Güler’s Magnificent Black & White Istanbul, and Portraits de Femmes, Algeria.

Favourite Travel story: Wow, a lot of them! From Croatia To Syria (on a bicycle), Capturing Change: From Mistress of Cairo to Martyrs of the Revolution, Egypt: A Love Story, The Chiefs of The Gambia and The Darfur Sartorialist: Grace & Colors of Darfur, Sudan.

Favourite Commentary: I wrote a lot of commentaries this year, and they were among the top reads, which encourages me to write more and find more ways to express myself. From all the articles I wrote in this section, I would list a few that made me think an rethink things: Why Are We Still Stuck on Humanizing?, On Charlie Hebdo: No Man Is an Island, Things We Must Know & Remember About the Israeli – Palestinian Conflict. Also, the most read article (by far) on Middle East Revised Why I Can’t Celebrate Malala’s Nobel Peace Prize, in which I tried to explain how I can (and will) celebrate Malala’s admirable work, but not her (or any other) Nobel Peace Prize.

✍  Statistics

During this year, Middle East Revised got around 340,000 unique visitors, which would almost make an average of 1,000 per day. The visitors came from 225 different countries, the biggest number of them from United States, UK, Pakistan, India, Canada, UAE, Germany and Australia. The number of Middle East Revised followers and subscribers reached 1,000. Top 3 posts were: Why I Can’t Celebrate Malala’s Nobel Peace Prize, Nizar Qabbani, Syrian Poet of Love, and Things We Must Know and Remember about Israeli–Palestinian Conflict.

A Thank You Note

The most important thing of all –  big thank you to all of you who read this blog and who have supported my work throughout this year. Your comments and kind words (but also some well-argued criticism) have kept me going, kept me (re)thinking, kept me writing. Most of you I don’t know personally, but I feel we share the same sense of mission, the same craving for justice. Big thank you to Writer from The East (The Human Lens), Writer’s Dream, JC (swedenmiddleeastviews), Beau Beausoleil, Fahrenheit 451 bookstore, Jeff Nguyen and Michael (just to name a few).

Stay well, stay inspired & creative!

/And listen to Seu Jorge./

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Syria

Thirty-Three Years Later: The Ghost of Hama Massacre Lingers On.

The Hama massacre occurred in February 1982, when an uprising in the city was brutally crushed under the orders of the president Hafez al-Assad. The attack was led by Hafez Assad’s brother Rifaat. The town was besieged for 27 days in order to quell an uprising by Sunni Muslim groups, including Muslim Brotherhood, against al-Assad’s government. Years have gone by, and we still don’t know the exact number of victims, but it is estimated that at least 10,000 Syrian citizens were killed, and there are even some estimates that put the number at 40,000. The number of missing has never been acknowledged by the Syrian leadership.

Robert Fisk was one of the rare journalists who witnessed the massacre. As always – Fisk warns us it wasn’t a black and white story, but of course – we must see it as a horrible event that can’t be justified. He also remembers how the Western governments were happy with the way Hafez al-Assad crushed the Muslim uprising. And then – almost thirty years later – we saw the West rising for justice in Syria, rising against al-Assad (this time Bashar, Hafez’s son). And in the last four years that attitude has been changing with all the unrest around the Middle East, the Western governments are still not very sure about their relationship with Bashar al-Assad. It’s an on and off thing, depending on various interests and changing circumstances. When international community starts talking about Syria, we can be sure the motifs are never justice and human rights, that is the lesson we learned.

Capture

Thanks to the NPR and a former Hama resident, Abu Aljude, there are some images that reveal the horror that took place in Hama thirty-three years ago. In an article written on the 30th anniversary of Hama massacre, Deborah Amos writes:

In the weeks and months that followed, news of the events in Hama dribbled out. But there were virtually no photos or any international reaction. Yet Hama stands as a defining moment in the Middle East. It is regarded as perhaps the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East, a shadow that haunts the Assad regime to this day.

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And now, three decades later, photos from Hama in 1982 are beginning to circulate on the Internet. One of the people compiling photos of Hama is Abu Aljude, who was a 16-year-old living in Hama at the time of the slaughter. ‘It took three weeks. We stayed in school overnight because we couldn’t walk back home. We walked over dead bodies. There were bodies in the streets,’ says Abu Aljude, now a medical technical expert living in California.

‘I wonder if dying then is less painful than surviving it and living the memories,’ he says.

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Within Syria, for decades now, mention of the massacre has been very much suppressed, although the general contours of the events—and various partisan versions, on all sides—are well known throughout the country. When the massacre is publicly referenced, it is only as the ‘event’ or ‘incident’ at Hama. The same thing is with the international community – there is still no general verdict saying the ‘event’ in Hama was indeed a massacre. That is why the ghost of Hama massacre still lingers on.

//all photos via NPR, courtesy of Abu Aljude//

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art of resistance, Egypt

Yusuf Idris: An Aimless Sort of Running (The Aorta).

Yusuf Idris was a great Egyptian writer of short stories, plays and novels. Here is an excerpt from his short story The Aorta (the story can be found in Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East). It was translated from the Arabic by Trevor J. Le Gassick.

Yusuf_Idris_portrett/Yusuf Idris, photo via wikimedia/

It wasn’t important that there was running; what mattered was that it was happening all over the place as if Doomsday itself had come. A very peculiar type of running it was, not like someone in a hurry, or fleeing in terror, or racing to save a life. No – an aimless sort of running, as if those doing it were trying to find some spot from which to actually begin their running and hurrying.

And so no one knew the goal or purpose of the others, all being in a state of watchful anxiety, concerned that one of them would find his own point of beginning which would then, no doubt, define their own. That’s why you saw people running so madly, crazily, and trying so desperately yet unsuccessfully to watch where the others were heading. Whenever anyone appeared at all hesitant and slowed down, or became more purposeful and increased speed and so seemed about to discover his goal, then dozens would rush toward him, hoping to arrive before him, to be the first to set off after a clearly defined objective.

This whole activity made the place, if viewed from high above or far away, seem to pulsate with sudden throbbings that then dispersed and subsided, it all happening at more than one place at a time. You would have thought the square paved with smooth veneer, if it had not been for those sudden pulsations occuring here and there that alone gave signs of life. You would have thought it all veneer of stone, or the human b eings gathered there lumps of multicolored rocks. No one knows whether blows were struck or not. Well, actually, I personally was struck by more than one blow, vicious painful blows. But it was impossible to know who was doing the striking because one had no constant neighbor and the continous fluid movement prevented you getting so much as a glance at the hundreds passing you or whom you were passing. In any case there were, most certainly, blows struck.

And what a surprise then! How could I ever have guessed that turning next moment to the person right beside me – the very first close neighbor whose features I had been able to properly examine – I would find, to my shock and amazement, Abduh!

But even as food Abduh was completely unappetizing, disgusting even; he was thin and weak. He never showed a glimmer of defiance, never faced up to anyone else to assert or defend his own existence.  He was ‘good’, that weakly, negative sort of goodness, as if he had a double hernia or something, and he sang sweet songs when by himself. He seemed ‘foreign’, out of place wherever he was, as if he’d never found his own country. When things got too much for him, he’d cry. His eyes would suddenly fill with tears. But there’d be no redness in them; the flush would gather into his nose, which would seem to swell and fill with the secretions.

Yes, for three whole days, morning, noon, and nights, I’ve been looking for you, Abduh, turning over the pavement stones in Cairo, breaking into houses, asking, demanding, pleading for help in finding you, searching every road, every street, every alley. My strength finally sapped, I fell asleep only to wake up in a rage of despair at finding you: my dream, my nightmare, and the pain of my hours awake or asleep is the thought of truning around sometime and finding you there, Abduh! 

‘Where have you been, Abduh, and where did you hide the money?'”

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