art of resistance, Lebanon, Syria

The Art Of Mohammad Khayata.

khayataweb/Walking on Thread, photo via Mohammad Khayata website/

I was first introduced to Mohammad Khayata’s work while I was strolling down the streets of Beirut last November. On of his works (Walking on Thread) was exhibited in a gallery I passed by and it caught my eye immediately. I told myself I should remember his name and investigate more about his art when I come back home.

Khayata is a painter and a photographer, born in Damascus in 1985. His first solo exhibition was organized in Lebanon, three years ago.

mohamad kh

Khayata’s work is beautiful – it’s sensitive, powerful, thoughtful. In Bits and Pieces, he portrays symbols of what went on in Syria, combining stories and memories like a patched work stitched and tied to a canvas.

The images capture real life grief – from the portrait of a man wrapped in a patched quilt made of memories to another one disappearing into a patched quilt holding a suitcase in preparation to leave behind his world and life as he knew it.

He started from the captured moment, sketched it and finally gave birth to an entity painted on a canvas full of personal memories, feelings and passions to make visual the unspoken words.

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In Blue Period, Khayata starts from his brother’s story, “who filled a boat with his body and went far away for a new hope surrounded by whales, to smugglers who create creative ways to fill our bodies in tanks of chocolates and oil”.

The work is about the burden of our choices, how they are forced upon us, how it can all change our lives.

It is “about our choices that became rare, destiny that became like that of a fisherman who throws his hook in a sea of memories hoping his bate will catch possessing thread of power, or a suitcase to emigrate as far as you can get in this world, a bullet to kill or get killed by, or an empty bottle to lock and isolate yourself in”.

mkahay

Remember Khayata’s name, like I did that day when I passed by that little gallery. He is an artist whose compassion and tenderness goes a long way.

//all photos © Mohammad Khayata//

For more on Khayata’s work, visit his website.

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art of resistance, Lebanon, Syria

Invisible Children | Syrian Refugees In Beirut.

/image © Rania Matar/

Just this month, Syrian Centre for Policy Research published a report examining the current state in Syria, after five years of war and conflict. Fatalities caused by war, directly and indirectly, amount to 470,000, according to the SCPR – a far higher total than the figure of 250,000 used by the United Nations until it stopped collecting statistics 18 months ago.

In all, 11.5% of the country’s population have been killed or injured since the crisis erupted in March 2011, the report estimates. The number of wounded is put at 1.9 million. Almost half of the population has been displaced. Last week, the International Red Cross said that 50,000 people had fled the upsurge in fighting in the north, requiring urgent deliveries of food and water.

Many of them have nowhere to go to, every country seems to be closing its borders, building up a fortress. The SCPR report notes that the rest of the world has been slow to wake up to the dimensions of the crisis. “Despite the fact that Syrians have been suffering for… five years, global attention to human rights and dignity for them only intensified when the crisis had a direct impact on the societies of developed countries.”

It is estimated that more than one million Syrian refugees found their new home in Lebanon, some in refugee camps, some in basic housing, and some on the streets. If you come to Beirut, you will see Syrian children selling flowers, chewing gum and wet tissues, you will see them playing music or standing silently at the corner of the street.

They became invisible children, something everybody is so used to that they don’t notice it anymore. Lebanese photographer Rania Matar decided to put a face on their individual stories, often crammed into one narrative.

Matar writes: “I was poignantly struck by the Syrian refugee children and teens standing at every other street corner, most often begging for money, sometimes selling red roses or miscellaneous trinkets, or carrying beat-up shoe-shining equipment. They all said they were working.”

She continues: “They were being brought by the truckload every morning, dropped off on the streets and expected to bring money back every day. People often walked or drove by them seemingly indifferent or just fed-up by what the influx of refugees has done to the country’s economy and resources and by what the city has become with kids begging in most cosmopolitan areas of Beirut.”

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Matar was moved by the children, the teenagers and the young mothers begging on the streets, and struck by the fact that they had become almost faceless and invisible to the locals.

She noticed how those kids and teens seemed to blend with the graffiti on the walls in front of which they were standing, just like an added new layer of ripped billboard advertising, as invisible and as anonymous.

“Being perceived by people and on the news as ‘the refugees’ the group identity seemed to define them more than their individual identity. Maybe by keeping them individually anonymous, one can more easily ignore the magnitude of the refugee crisis.

I tried through my images to put an individual face to the invisible children, to give them their dignity and portray their individuality”, Matar writes.

To find out more about Matar’s project Invisible Children and see more photos – visit The Story Institute. For more on Matar’s work in general, visit her official website.

//all photos © Rania Matar//

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art of resistance, Lebanon

Ania Dabrowska: A Lebanese Archive.

12_Ania Dabrowska_ALebaneseArchive_Om Ashad_Diab Alkarssifi_1984/photo © Diab Alkarsiffi, A Lebanese Archive, Ania Dabrowska/

A Lebanese Archive is project by the Polish artist Ania Dabrowska, who was inspired by the previously unknown, personal collection of photographs belonging to Diab Alkarssifi, a former photojournalist from Lebanon.

The collection consists of his work, family albums, and photographs from studios in Beirut, Damascus and Cairo and covers over one hundred years of cultural and political history of Lebanon and the Middle East. It documents Alkarssifi’s student years in Moscow and Budapest, the Lebanese Civil Wars and local events in his home city of Baalbeck, close to the Syrian border.

The images were taken and collected by Alkarssifi over a lifetime: thousands of photographic prints, and negatives, including his numerous photographic assignments and images of everyday life.

This unique collection offers an insight into daily family and professional life, cultural celebrations and political moments at a time in Lebanon’s recent history when many archives have been destroyed or lost in repeated conflicts and civil wars. Alkarssifi came to London in 1993, bringing part of this archive with him.

2_Ania Dabrowska_ALebaneseArchive_Om Ashad_Diab Alkarssifi_1984/photo © Diab Alkarsiffi, A Lebanese Archive, Ania Dabrowska/

A chance meeting at Arlington (a London hostel for homeless men and women where Dabrowska had a SPACE residency in 2010-2012) led Dabrowska to conceive a project through which Alkarssifi’s collection might be preserved, re-presented, made accessible to the public and become a catalyst for consideration of archives in contemporary context.

Her interpretation and arrangement of the archive with her own imagery and assemblages has led to a fascinating layering of the work inspired by their conversations on history, photography and personal memory – much of which was published for the first time.

Arranged as Archival Stories, Cycles, and new compositions, A Lebanese Archive comprises of photographs from the archival collection and new works by Ania Dabrowska, punctuated by short exchanges between Dabrowska and Alkarssifi on the history and making of the images and stories collected in the book. The project is introduced and reflected on in new texts by Ania Dabrowska and Akram Zaatari.

lebanese/photo © A Lebanese Archive, Book Works/

The project includes the book published by Book Works, exhibitions, an archive to be established as part of the Arab Image Foundation Collection in Beirut and a public engagement programme documented on Lebanese Archive website. Enjoy it all!

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art of resistance, Lebanon

Playlist: Yasmine Hamdan.

maxresdefault/Yasmine Hamdan, photo: ytb-prtsc/

It’s hard not to love Yasmine Hamdan. I am sure you’ve heard of this Lebanese goddess and there is a great chance she enchanted you in Only Lovers Left Alive, singing her mesmerizing song Hal.

Hamdan is now based in Paris, where she continues to make great music. She first became known with Soapkills, the duo she founded with Zeid Hamdan while she was still living in Beirut.

Her solo album Ya Nass came out two years ago, and it brought so much freshness to the world of Arab music. For years, Hamdan was an icon of underground music across the Arab world, but she’s finally getting more recognition – not just in the Arab countries, but all over the world.

I am so excited for her, and I want to continue enjoying her music for many more years to come. Click on the video, let Hamdan cast her spell.

Previous Playlist:

Atab by Cheb Abid

Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud

Khebez Dawle

Checkpoint 303 – The Iqrit Files

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art of resistance, Lebanon, Palestine

Shatila, Still An Open Wound.

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Just two weeks ago I visited Beirut, the city I’ve been waiting on for so long. Being there, my big wish was to explore Dahiyeh, the southern part of the city. I’ve realized it is an area totally separated from the rest of the city, an area in which the oppression and segregation of Shiites and Palestinians continues.

What really struck me was the visit to Shatila. I thought I was well prepared for it. After all, I did read all of those books and articles, I’ve listened to numerous lectures, watched movies… I knew what the world of Waltz with Bashir looked like, I knew the streets on which the characters of De Niro’s game were walking on, I knew all about the piles of bodies from the Gate of Sun, I knew about the dirt Beirut’s elite refused to see – like Lamia Ziadé wrote:

“But we still want to think that our country is the Switzerland, the Paris, the Las Vegas, the Monaco and the Acapulco of the Middle East all in one, and what’s more, we want to enjoy it. From the cafe terraces of Raouche or Ain Mreissels, where we sometimes go for a banana split, we can’t see the Shiite ghettoes or the Palestinian camps. And when we wear sunglasses we can’t spot all the dirt.”

shatila 2 ivana

Well, atleast I thought I knew… Coming to Shatila made me realize that nothing can really prepare you for it. Most of the things we know about Shatila are connected to the massacre of Sabra and Shatila (1982) and the War of the camps (1984 – 1989). Since all of those events took part during the Lebanese civil war I think our brain tends to put them in the “past” department. But there is no “past” departments in Shatila, everything spills into present.

The most tragic thing is not that nobody was really brought to justice for the horrible crimes committed in Sabra and Shatila more than three decades ago, the most tragic thing is that people still live there – in refugee camps, in dirt, poverty and desperation.

I was standing on the place where the massacre was committed, a small area of orange and brown dirt, thinking how it wasn’t until recently that a small memorial plaque was put to commemorate the victims. It seemed so unfair – for this place to look so everyday like, to feel so ordinary, a patch of land close to a small building, where chickens and turkeys sometimes come out to have a walk.

But that is what also makes it symbolic on so many levels – this suffering that goes on, continues and deepens, but still goes somewhat unnoticed, still gets perceived as a normal state of things. That is what Palestinian people understand the best, hardly anybody can relate to it as much as they can – life of suffering continuously followed by ignorance, by status quo.

shatila ivana

In Shatila, more than twenty three thousands of people live in the area of one square kilometre. There are families of fifteen living in small room for years. Camp was built in 1949, and in the first years refugees lived in tents. In 1949 that piece of land was rented by UNRWA on a 99-year lease which proves it was known already at that point that the Palestinian refugees will stay outside Palestine for a long time.

In the 70’s, when many of the refugees lived in Shatila for more than twenty years, they started building first houses and small buildings. With time, people expanded the houses, doing it mostly themselves – which is a problem because the constructions in the camp are quite cheap and poorly made, and it feels like everything could just collapse one day. The very sad thing is that, if something like that happened, the world probably wouldn’t care.

I asked the translators that were with us in the camp if they had ever been in this part of the city before. They were Lebanese and lived in Beirut. They said this is their first time, adding that they hope it’s also the last.

In discarded Shatila, the view of the sky is prevented by the intricate web of electricity cabels, connecting all of the buildings and houses. Everybody is stealing electricity here, and a man recently died due to a dangerous encounter with the web of cables. But it’s nothing new here, people already got used to such stories.

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There are special educational issues in Shatila connected to the school in the camp, financed mainly by UNRWA. Lovely people from the Association Najdeh explained to me how every year there is a battle about the finances for the next school year and UNRWA claims they are not able to finance it anymore.

At the moment there are around fifty students in every class and next year there might be more – due to budget cuts. Activists from Najdeh tell me that the big shift happened after the Oslo Accords, when UNRWA decided to focus more on the West Bank, while the Palestinians in Lebanon were left almost forgotten.

Health service is also on the long list of the things not functioning well in Shatila. “Panadol for everything” is already a famous saying in the camp beacuse it illustrates the situation well. The only help people get is mainly connected to food – certain amounts of flour, rice, oil, gas. But there are almost no efforts to move beyond the relief phase.

There are also a lot of Syrian refugees in Shatila nowadays, but also some of the Lebanese refugees who arrived to the camp during the Civil war. At the moment, there is still around one thousand people in the camp who have been there since 1949. They’ve spent their whole lives there and welcomed their old age there. I cannot even begin to imagine what their life was like, but I am sure it took enormous amounts of strength and resilience to survive through all of that, to still find a reason to live and look forward to every new day.

shatila 5 ivana

Some of them still keep the keys of their houses in Palestine, together with the small things they took when they were leaving – every year on Nakba day they take it out of their drawers, under their pillows and from their walls. They sit and talk about their memories and the right of return. But it seems like the world keeps on laughing in their faces.

Palestinians really have it the worst in Lebanon. They cannot get the citizenship, they cannot work, or own a property. Basically, all they can do is to be in a refugee camp, and/or turn to criminal or radical activities.  As we walk through the camp, I see children playing with small wooden planks on the dusty streets, pretending they have guns and are in a war, behind a house that has Rachel Corrie graffiti painted on it.

In every corner there is a small dedication to Arafat, a relic from a long time ago – when Arafat was still young and cool, when he stood for something.  The flea markets we pass by are modest, people are trying to sell whatever they can to earn some money. There is garbage in all colors everywhere, and the smell is far from nice.

I gaze up to the sky and think about the children we met at the Centre for psychosocial support. I think about the way they showered us with smiles and joy. They are children like all children – same in the way they treat the world, but different in the way world treats them.

What will happen with them when they grow up? What can happen with somebody who grows up in this environment? Walking on these streets it is easy to understand how one can turn to radicalism – when your life doesn’t have a purpose, you might wish to find it in your death.

shatila 7 ivana

That’s the south of Beirut, separated by another Green line, still unnamed and not very much talked about. Beirut, a city that sleeps above the ancient Rome, still doesn’t like to learn from its mistakes.  Like the lyrics say – Make me forget myself, I want to be like Beirut. But the thing is – we’ve all forgotten too much, and some days it seems like all we do is forget.

//all photos © Ivana Perić, MER//

If you find issues in Shatila important, please see more about Association Najdeh  and the work they do in Shatila and in other camps.  You might ask them how you can help. Because there’s always something we can do and a way we can help. Hey, maybe you can collect some money among your friends and donate it to Najdeh?

Or you can try to inform the people in your country about this, protest and put pressure on your government to do something about Shatila and other camps (and Israeli – Palestinian conflict)? Or you can maybe even go to Shatila for couple of weeks and volunteer? Maybe you could teach English, or prepare some creative workshops? These are just some of the first ideas I had. Whatever you do, it’s important.

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art of resistance, Lebanon

The Book To Read: The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine.

blog_OP_bubbles_hakawati/illustration by Ayloul, for the article ‘The Hakawati, a story in pieces‘, The Outpost magazine/

“A hakawati is a teller of tales, myths, and fables. A storyteller, and entertainer. A troubadour of sorts, someone who earns his keep by beguiling an audience with yarns. Like the word ‘hekayah’ story, fable, news, hakawati is derived from the Lebanese word ‘haki’, which means talk or conversation. This suggests that in Lebanese the mere act of talking is storytelling.”

Lebanese writer Rabih Alameddine has had a good number of notable works by now, but this is his first book I (finally) managed to read. The rain was pouring most of the days last week, so I sat on my little balcony, letting myself go where Alameddine takes me. It was a good journey – I was bewitched and wanted more with every page.

In its essence, The Hakawati is an hommage to all the great storytellers of the Arab world and the art of storytelling itself. It is a story about the magic of stories and it was done so well it became magic in itself. And really – where would we be, what would we know, how would we feel – without stories? There’s no life, no memories, no history without stories. Like Alameddine writes:

What happens is of little significance compared with the stories we tell ourselves about what happens. Events matter little, only stories of events affect us.”

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/The Hakawati, photo via Leonard Shoup/

The Hakawati is a mixture of stories that unravel throughout the book –  it is a historical novel and a family saga, and an impressive short story collection told at the same time. It takes its inspiration from everywhere – old Arab folktales, the Bible, the Qur’an, modern Lebanese storytellers, etc.

Music also pulls its strings here – particularly the oud, an instrument that was so important for Osama (the main character). And there’s more than one reference to the great Umm Kalthoum and the notion of tarab – known in Arab music as a musical ecstasy, the merger between music and emotional transformation.

The book is also a sort of a love letter to Beirut and Lebanon. Which doesn’t mean their relationship is perfect – like all great lovers, they went through a lot of turmoil. Osama returns to Beirut after many years in America to stand vigil at his father’s deathbed. The Beirut he finds is a shell of the Beirut he remembers, but he and his friends and family take solace in the things that have always sustained them: gossip, laughter, and – stories. Alameddine writes:

“Like all cities, Beirut has many layers, and I had been familiar with one or two. What I was introduced to that day with Ali and Kamal was the Beirut of its people. You take different groups, put them on top of each other, simmer for a thousand years, keep adding more and more strange tribes, simmer for another few thousand years, salt and pepper with religion, and what you get is a delightful mess of a stew that still tastes delectable and exotic, no matter how many times you partake of it.”

You’ll come to know the diversity of Beirut through this book – there’s Elie, the neighbourhood bully and a militia leader, Osama and his half-Druze family (his mother is Christian and his sister Lina too), Jewish childhood friend Fatima, and a lot of other striking characters.

They are all lost – being the young generation during the Lebanese civil war – like their lives have been on hold for too long and now it’s hard to press the play button again. But if there ever was and is comfort, it is found in stories. Osama digs through the stories of where he came from – at times it is to know that he was and is at all, and at times it is to know where he can go or that he can go (on) at all.

And that is the beauty of stories – no matter how lost you are, you can always find your place and your people there. It is the eternal shelter –  you can just sit there and wait till the storm passes.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

Anti-Arab Racism in the USA

A Tale of Love and Darkness

Afghanistan, Were God Only Comes to Weep

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

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art of resistance, Lebanon, Palestine

Elias Khoury: Gate of the Sun.

The following is an excerpt from Elias Khoury’s novel Gate of the Sun (translated by Humphrey Davies). Drawing on the stories Khoury gathered from refugee camps over the course of many years, Gate of the Sun has been called the first magnum opus of the Palestinian saga.

gate-of-the-sun

Umm Hassan is dead. I saw everyone racing through the alleys of the camp and heard the sound of weeping. Everyone was spilling out of their houses, bent over to catch their tears, running. Nabilah, Mahmoud al-Qasemi’s wife, our mother, was dead. We called her mother because everyone born in the Shatila camp fell from their mother’s guts into her hands. I too had fallen into her hands, and I too ran the day she died.

Umm Hassan came from al-Kweikat, her village in Galilee, to become the only midwife in Shatila – a woman of uncertain age and without children. I only knew her when she was old, with stooped shoulders, a face full of creases, large eyes shining in a white square, and a white cloth covering her white hair. Our neighbor, Sana’, the wife of Karim al-Jashi the kunafa  seller, said Umm Hassan dropped in on her the night before last and told her her death was coming.

“I heard its voice, daughter. Death whispers, and its voice is soft.”

Speaking in her half-Bedouin accent she told Sana’ about the messenger of death. “The messenger came in the morning and told me to get ready.” And she told Sana’ how she wanted to be prepared for burial. “She took me by the hand,” said Sana’, “led me to her house, opened her wooden trunk, and showed me the white silk shroud. She told me she would bathe before she went to sleep: ‘I’ll die pure, and I want only you to wash me.’ “

Umm Hassan is dead. Everyone knew that this Monday morning, November 20th, 1995, was the time set for Nabilah, Fatimah’s daughter, to meet death. Everyone awoke and waited, but no one was brave enough to go to her house to discover she was dead. Umm Hassan had told everyone, and everyone believed her. Only I was taken by surprise. I stayed with you until eleven at night, and then, exhausted, I went to my room and slept. It was night, the camp was asleep, and no one told me. But everyone else knew.

No one would question Umm Hassan because she always told the truth. Hadn’t she been the only one to weep on the morning of June 5, 1967? Everyone was dancing in the streets, anticipating going home to Palestine, but she wept. She told everyone she’d decided to wear mourning. Everyone laughed and said Umm Hassan had gone mad. Throughout the six long days of the war she never opened the windows of her house; on the seventh, out she came to wipe away everyone’s tears. She said she knew Palestine would not come back until all of us had died.

Over the course of her long life, Umm Hassan had buried her four children one after the other. They would come to her borne on planks, their clothes covered in blood. All she had left was a son called Naji, who lived in America. Though Naji wasn’t her real son, he was: She had picked him up from beneath an olive tree on the Kabri-Tarshiha road and had fed him from her dry breasts, then returned him to his mother when they reached the village of Qana, in Lebanon.

Umm Hassan died today. No one dared go into her house. About twenty women gathered to wait, then Sana’ came and knocked on the door, but no one opened it. She pushed it, it opened, she went in and ran to the bedroom. Umm Hassan was sleeping, her head covered with her white headscarf. Sana’ went over and took her by the shoulders, and the chill of death flowed into the hands of the kunafa-seller’s wife, who screamed. The women entered, the weeping began, and everyone raced to the house.

I, too, would like to run with the others, go in with them, see Umm Hassan sleeping her eternal sleep and breathe in the smell of olives that clung to her small home. But I didn’t weep. For three months I’ve been incapable of reacting. Only this man floating above his bed makes me feel the throb of life.

For three months he’s been laid out on his bed in Galilee Hospital, where I work as a doctor, or where I pretend that I’m a doctor. I sit next to him, and I try. Is he dead or alive? I don’t know – am I helping or tormenting him? Should I tell him stories or listen to him?

For three months I’ve been in this room. Today Umm Hassan died, and I want him to know, but he doesn’t hear. I want him to come with me to her funeral, but he won’t get up. They said he fell into a coma. An explosion in the brain causing permanent damage. A man lies in front of me, and I have no idea what to do.

I’ll just try not to let him rot while he’s still alive, because I’m sure he’s asleep, not dead. But what difference does it make? Is it true what Umm Hassan said about a sleeper being like a dead man – that the sleeper’s soul leaves his body only to return when he wakes, but that the dead man’s soul leaves and doesn’t come back?

Where is the soul of Yunes, son of Ibrahim, son of Suleiman al-Asadi? Has it left him for a distant place, or is it hovering above us in the hospital room, asking me not to go because the man is immersed in distant darknesses, afraid of the silence? I swear I’ve no idea. On her first visit Umm Hassan said that Yunes was in torment. She said he was in a different place from us.

“So what should I do?” I asked her.

“Do what he tells you,” she answered.

“But he doesn’t speak,” I said.

“Oh yes, he does,” she said, “and it’s up to you to hear his voice.”

And I don’t hear it, I swear I don’t, but I’m stuck to this chair, and I talk and talk. Tell me, I beg of you, what should I do? I sit by your side and listen to the sound of weeping coming through the window of your room. Can’t you hear it? Everyone else is weeping, so why don’t you? It’s become our habit to look out for occasions to weep, for tears are dammed up behind our eyes. Umm Hassan has burst open our reservoir of tears. Why won’t you get up and weep?

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art of resistance, Lebanon

Remembering Mahdi ‘Amel: The Importance of Resistance.

Hassan Abdullah Hamdan, more commonly known as Mahdi ‘Amel, was an Arab Marxist intellectual and a political activist. Today is the twenty-eight anniversary of his assassination and a perfect time to reflect on his life and remember his work.

Hassan Hamdan/Mahdi ‘Amel, photo via sierra.mmic/

Mahdi ‘Amel joined the Lebanese Communist Party in 1960, at the age of twenty-four. Some years after, he received a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Lyon in France.  In 1963, he traveled to Algeria and worked in education in the teachers’ bureau in Al-Qustantiniyah city. He also wrote several articles for The African Revolution magazine (published in Algeria), examining education and its methods.

In the mid 70’s, he returned to Lebanon and soon joined the Institute of Social Sciences as a fulltime professor in the Lebanese University, teaching philosophy, politics, and methodologies. He started to work in Al-Tareeq magazine under the name ‘Mahdi `Amel,’ which he used in all his writings later.

Mahdi ‘Amel was also a member the Union of Lebanese Writers and he wrote poems, which he signed under the name ‘Hilal bin Zaytoon.’

As it is very well pointed out on his Jadaliyya profile, ‘Amel’s “struggle was not limited to writing but he practiced what he said by travelling in cities and villages, lecturing, discussing and explaining several causes, like nationality and liberation, to the people in a simple clear language. He was known in these discussions as ‘comrade Tariq.’ 

The essential question he asked was one asked by many other Marxists and leftists living in non-Western societies: How can Marxist principles be implemented and work within realities that were not European or neo-European? In his Frontline article about ‘Amel, Vijay Prashad relects on this aspect of Amel’s work:

In one of Mahdi Amel’s early essays, ‘Colonialism and Backwardness’, published in al-Tariq (1968), he wrote, ‘If you really want our own true Marxist thought to see the light, and to be capable to see reality from a scientific perspective, we should not start with Marxist thought itself and apply it to our own reality, but rather start from our reality as a foundational movement.’ If one starts with the historical development of a society and its own cultural resources, ‘only then can our thought truly become Marxist’ (translated by Hisham Ghassan Tohme). Marxism could not be adopted whole cloth. The reality of colonial ‘backwardness’ (takhalluf) had to be explored and Marxism elaborated to take this into account.

Since Mahdi Amel is almost unknown outside the Arab world (his work, except some tiny bits, is also not been translated from Arabic, unfortunately), Prashad said he wanted to write about ‘Amel because of his interest in innovative Marxism. Mahdi ‘Amel tried to put Marxism to the service of the concrete conditions of their society – to understand the social forces and constraints and the motive forces and possibilities of their politics.

Prashad, who met the family of Mahdi Amel and was fascinated by their story, writes:

As the struggles emerged out of and alongside the Communist movement, Mahdi Amel travelled across the tobacco farmers’ bases, giving lectures about Marxism and its relevance to Lebanon’s contemporary problems. He spoke in homes and mosques, remembers Evelyne Brun, and was listened to ‘with religious silence’. He explained how backwardness worked, and what were the intentions of Lebanon’s right wing (the Phalange) as representatives of outside forces. Years later, Evelyne Brun learned, he was known as ‘the man with the green beard’ and had attained a legendary status amongst the farmers.

Mahdi ‘Amel was assassinated on 18 May 1987, near his house in the area of Al-Mulla in Beirut, while on his way to the Institute of Social Sciences in the Lebanese University where he used to teach. After his martyrdom, his articles and educational books which he wrote between 1968 and 1973 were gathered and published in 1991 in a book entitled Issues of Teaching and Educational Policies. In these articles, he analyzed the Lebanese state’s educational policy of the Lebanese State that works to destroy the official educational process and deepen sectarian loyalties in order to reproduce the political-class-sectarian system.

The Left in the Arab world suffered gravely over the past two decades. However, there seems to be a great interest in ‘Amal’s work again, a sort of a revival, a search for alternatives. Where it will lead, we’ll see.

For more on Mahdi ‘Amel, I recommend reading the Frontline article by Vajid Prashad, Al Akhbar article by Yazan al-Saadi, and ‘Amel’s Jadaliyya profile.

• • •

Previous Remembering… sessions:

Remembering Samir Kassir: Life as Courage, Death as Silence

Remembering Hassan Fathy: To Build With The People

Remembering Assia Djebar: I Write Against Erasure

Remembering Howard Zinn: To Be Hopeful in Bad Times

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art of resistance, Lebanon

Remembering Samir Kassir: Life As Courage, Death As Silence.

Today would be Samir Kassir’s birthday and he would celebrate it. He would be fifty-five. Lebanon would celebrate (with) him. He would be happy.

But that will never happen since Samir Kassir was assassinated ten years ago.

2014-10-04-21_41_50-samirkassir1-jpg-310c397320-opera/Samir Kassir, photo via ballandalus/

Born to a Palestinian father and a Syrian mother, Kassir was one of the most well known intellectuals of the Arab left. He was a professor of history and a journalist. He was a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause, and of secular democracy throughout the Middle East. He was a vocal critic of the Syrian presence in Lebanon  – many say that’s what (or who) killed him.

From 1981 to 2000, Kassir contributed to Le Monde Diplomatique. In 1998 he became an editorial writer for the daily An Nahar newspaper and was widely known for his popular weekly column. He wrote numerous books – about Lebanese civil war, history of Beirut, Israeli – Palestinian conflict and Arab identity.His most famous and probably most important work is Being Arabin which he popularized the concept of the “Arab malaise”.

In Being Arab, Kassir writes:

‘Arab’ itself is so impoverished a word that it’s reduced in places to a mere ethnic label with overtones of censure, or, at best, a culture that denies everything modernity stands for.

He continues, describing the “Arab malaise”:

The Arab malaise is also inextricably bound up with the gaze of the Western Other – a gaze that prevents everything, even escape. Suspicious and condescending by turns, the Other’s gaze constantly confronts you with your apparently insurmountable condition. It ridicules your powerlessness, foredooms all your hopes, and stops you in your tracks time and again at one or other of the world’s broder-crossings. You have to have been the bearer of a passport of a pariah state to know how categorical such a gaze can be. You have to have measured your anxieties against the Other’s certainties – his or her certainties about you – to understand the paralysis it can inflict.

Still, you could conceivably overcome, or even simply ignore, the Western gaze. But how can you avoid returning it, and measuring yourself against its reflection?

In the article Who killed Samir Kassir?, Robert Fisk wrote:

‘He always left home at 10.30am and I saw him walking across the street,’ a female neighbour told me yesterday. ‘He always left home at the same time. He opened the door of his car, sat inside and started the engine. Then the car blew up.’

 Close inspection of Mr Kassir’s Alfa-Romeo, registration number 165670, showed clearly the blast came from beneath the driver’s seat. It tore open the roof, blasted out the driver’s door, smashed the steering column and hurled Mr Kassir on to the passenger seat. The ignition seems to have detonated the bomb.

 This was a shock that no one in Beirut expected – except, of course, the assassins. Germany’s top detective, Detlev Mehlis, is already here with his team to investigate the murder of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri in February. We all thought that Lebanon’s assassins were in their rabbit holes, fearful of arrest.

But no, they are still on operational duty, still in killing mode. Nassib Lahoud, the opposition MP and friend of Kassir – he may be the next Lebanese president – was in tears when I spoke to him beside Mr Kassir’s wrecked car. He talked about ‘criminal hands’, about the ‘intelligence apparatus’ who he blamed for the assassination. The only word he didn’t use was ‘Syria’.

So who murdered Samir Kassir?

The question remains. The answers are being whispered around Beirut for ten years now, but the overall silence drowns those whispers, and it drowns all the tears and screams that came with the news of Kassir’s death.

And he was not the only one. It was one of the many political assassinations that occurred in Lebanon from 2004 to 2008.  May Chidiac, also a critic of Syrian policies in Lebanon, managed to survive when a car bomb detonated as she entered her car – but she lost an arm and a leg. Samir Kassir’s colleague, An Nahar’s chief editor, and top anti-Syria legislator Gebran Tueni, was killed by a car bomb just couple of months after Kassir. That’s just to name a few.

So who killed them?  We still “don’t know”. When will we be ready to know?

Unlike his life and his work, the killing of Samir Kassir remains wrapped in silence, tied with cowardice. Let us remember that and let us remember him.

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Previous Remembering… sessions:

Remembering Hassan Fathy: To Build With The People

Remembering Assia Djebar: I Write Against Erasure

Remembering Howard Zinn: To Be Hopeful in Bad Times

Remembering Pablo Neruda: Pablo Neruda, Presente!

and more.

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art of resistance, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine

Remembering May Ziadeh: Ahead of (her) Time.

May Ziadeh (Marie Elias Ziadeh, born in Nazareth, Palestine in 1886, died in Cairo in 1941) was one of the key figures of the Nahda in the early 20th-century Arab literary scene, and is known for being one of the early Palestinian feminists. Ziadeh was born in Palestine to a Lebanese father and a Palestinian mother, and moved to Egypt where she wrote for Arab newspapers and periodicals.

may ziade iwan behanceMay Ziadeh /image © Iwan/

Her poetry and essays were pioneering, she wrote numerous articles and editorials and was noticed for her translation efforts and intiatives concerning English, German, and French novels of the peirod. Shortly after the Russian Revolution, she raised the issue of socialism and other political ideologies of the day in a series of articles.

In 1921, she convened a conference under the heading “The goal of life”, where she called upon Arab women to aspire toward freedom, and to be open to the Occident without forgetting their Oriental identity. Ziadeh also wrote sensitive biographical studies of three pioneer women writers and poets, Warda al-Yaziji, A’isha Taymur, and Bahithat al-Badiya.

She was perhaps best-known for hosting a Tuesday salon, which remained active for approximately 20 years (1911-1931), during which time May’s house, where it was held, was the pole to which the greatest writers and intellectuals of the age were drawn.

Antje Ziegler writes in her essay May Ziadeh Rediscovered:

„ If May’s, in comparison to other women of her time, nearly unprecedented literary, journalistic and rhetorical efforts to find public recognition, can be seen as a steady search for social integration, the founding of her salon appears to be the logical culmination of these efforts.  Open to men and women of varied religious, national and social background, this salon contrasts with the other famous Egyptian salon of the period, the politically influenced salon of Princess Nazli Abu Fadil, exclusively visited by men.

May Ziadeh was a prominent, but moderate representative of this ‘age of enlightenment’, who did not equate modernity with the denial of cultural heritage in blind imitation of the West.  Strongly dependent on integration herself, she advocated the reconciliation of conflicting views all her life.“

lebanon 2010 July 377Ziadeh /photo via northshorewoman/

Very well known but still mysterious in its nature is her correspondence with Khalil Gibran (who lived in New York), which extended over two decades, though the two never met. Ziadeh became one of the most prolific writers of the new genre of ‘shi’r manthur’, prose poetry or poetic prose.  Her reputation as a critic also grew first of all in connection with Khalil Gibran, whose works she helped make famous in the Arab world with her articles.

Ziadeh never married. At the end of 1920s, she suffered a series of personal losses, beginning with the death of her parents, her friends, and Khalil Gibran. She fell into a deep depression and returned to Lebanon where her relatives placed her in a psychiatric hospital to gain control over her estate. She eventually recovered and returned to Cairo where she died. She left more than 15 books of poetry, literature and translations. I believe none of her works are available in English, unfortunately.

img_34391/image via Bambi’s Soapbox/

Gibran’s letters to Ziadeh were published in a book Love Letters (Ziadeh’s family did not want her letters published, so we do not get to read her responses to Gibran). It feels appropriate to finish this post with one of Gibran’s letters to Ziadeh (written in May of 1921). He writes:

“Where is my letter, May? Why have you not sent it to me? I am eager to receive it, and I want all of it, every little bit of it. Do you know how much I desire to receive that letter after having read a brief snatch of it—a divine fragment which arrived to announce the dawning of a new day?”

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