art of resistance, Syria

The Book To Read: A Hand Full Of Stars.

Rafik_Schami/Rafik Schami, photo by Andreas Pohlmann/

First of all, I have to say that I am so happy I discovered Rafik Schami and Syria through his eyes. A Hand Full of Stars (published in 1987) is a book about a teenage boy who wants to be a journalist. The book is actually his diary, in which he describes daily life in his hometown of Damascus.

Inspired by his dearest friend, old Uncle Salim (a man whose great love for telling stories reminded me of another uncle – Uncle Jihad from Alameddine’s Hakawati), he begins to write down his thoughts and impressions of family, friends, life at school, political situation in Syria, working in his father’s bakery and his growing feelings for his girlfriend, Nadia.

With time, the diary becomes more than just a way to remember the daily adventures; on its pages he explores his frustration with the government injustices he witnesses. His courage and ingenuity finally find an outlet when he and his friends begin a subversive underground newspaper.

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Born in Syria in 1946, Schami is the son of a baker from a Syriac Christian family. Much of the story in A Hand Full of Stars seems autobiographical. From 1964 to 1970 he was the co-founder and editor of the wall news-sheet Al-Muntalak (The Starting-Point) in the old quarter of Damascus.

Like his main character in A Hand Full of Stars, he faced regime’s oppression on daily basis. In 1970, he left Syria for Lebanon to evade censorship and the military draft, and the following year he moved to Germany, where he still lives today.

Storytelling and writing books remain one of his biggest passions. A Hand Full of Stars is a simple and sweet book. In all its simplicity it manages to make you happy, angry, sad, but most of all – aware and hopeful.

I love that it’s an obligatory read in some elementary schools in Croatia (which was also a discovery to me, since I didn’t encounter it during my formal education years).

It is a great way to inform children and young people about other societies (in this case oppression and political instability in Syria), but also help them discover the beauty and diversity of different cultures – Schami’s Damascus is a great window into that.

And maybe the most important thing – it teaches children (and all of us adults – because everyone should read it) about compassion and solidarity, about the little ways we can help each other and help our society. It tells us that being kind and corageus in small, everyday situations, actually goes a long way.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

Palestinian Walks: Notes On A Vanishing Landscape

Night Draws Near

The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine

Anti-Arab Racism in the USA

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Afghanistan, art of resistance, Jordan, Syria

A Refugee Footnote.

According to UN data, more than 43 million people worldwide are now forcibly displaced as a result of conflict and persecution, the highest number since the mid-1990s.

More than 15 million of the uprooted are refugees who fled their home countries, while another 27 million are people who remain displaced by conflict within their own homelands — so-called ‘internally displaced people’ (IDPs).

Major refugee populations include Palestinians (4.8 million), Afghans (2.9 million), Iraqis (1.8 million), Somalis (700,000), Congolese (456,000),  Myanmarese (407,000), Colombians (390,000), Sudanese (370,000).

Children constitute about 41 percent of the world’s refugees. Many of them spend their entire childhood far from home and without access to basic education.

Following are the photos from refugee camps outside of Islamabad, home to almost over a million displaced Afghan children (registered and unregistered); and from Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, home to some of the more than one million displaced Syrian children.

Refugee children from Pakistan's troubled Swat Valley who fled fighting, play in Jalozai camp, Monday, May 18, 2009 in Peshawar, Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban have vowed to resist until the "last breath" as security forces entered two militant-held towns and fought on the outskirts of a third in what could turn into bloody urban battles near the Afghan border. (AP Photo/ Mohammad Sajjad)

Refugee children from Pakistan’s troubled Swat Valley who fled fighting, play in Jalozai camp, Monday, May 18, 2009 in Peshawar, Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban have vowed to resist until the “last breath” as security forces entered two militant-held towns and fought on the outskirts of a third in what could turn into bloody urban battles near the Afghan border. (AP Photo/ Mohammad Sajjad)

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An Afghan girl smiles as she rides on a hand-operated ferris wheel with other children in a slum on the outskirts of Islamabad March 19, 2013. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood (PAKISTAN - Tags: SOCIETY)

An Afghan girl smiles as she rides on a hand-operated ferris wheel with other children in a slum on the outskirts of Islamabad March 19, 2013. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood (PAKISTAN )

 

/Photos by: Mohammad Sajjad, Mohammed Muheisen, Nathalie Bardou, Pedro Ugarte, Emilio Morenatti,  Faisal Mahmood/

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Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan

Five For Friday: Costs of War.

This week, Five For Friday presents five charts and graphics concerning wars in Afganistan, Iraq and Pakistan. These exist thanks to the Costs of War project. First released in 2011, the Costs of War report has been compiled and updated by more than 30 economists, anthropologists, lawyers, humanitarian personnel, and political scientists as the first comprehensive analysis of over a decade of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan.

The project analyzes the implications of these wars in terms of human casualties, economic costs, and civil liberties. Some of this data is from 2011 and 2012, so have in mind that these numbers are probably significantly higher today.

1. Iraqi IDPs and refugees.

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There are more than 1.5 million internally displaced Iraqis and 1.5 million Iraqi refugees. Fifty-eight percent of Iraqi IDP households are food insecure, consuming only cereals and carbohydrates on a daily basis. Approximately 500,000 people live as squatters in Iraq. For more on this issue, read the Costs of War report.

2. Afghan IDPs and refugees.

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As of 2012, there remained 1.8 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan. There are an estimated 447,547 IDPs in Afghanistan (updated). Over half of all Afghans do not have clean water and 63 percent lack effective sanitation. There are an average of 55 health personnel—including doctors, nurses, and midwives—for every 10,000 inhabitants. For more on this issue, see the Costs of War report.

3. Education in Iraq.

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Education is important. After the 2003 invasion, Iraqi universities were stripped of their cultural artifacts as well as basic equipment—such as books, lab equipment, and desks—that allowed them to function at all. As of 2006, an estimated 160 to 380 Iraqi professors had been killed, and over 30 percent of Iraq’s professors, doctors, pharmacists and engineers emigrated between 2003 and 2007. Up to one million books and ten million unique documents have been destroyed, lost or stolen across Iraq since 2003. The US Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Education received only $8 million dollars to reconstruct Iraqi universities, including the provision of basic supplies. For more on this issue, see the Costs of War report.

4. Direct war deaths: Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

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The tally of all of the war’s recorded dead — including armed forces on all sides, contractors, journalists, humanitarian workers and civilians — shows that over 350,000 people have died due to direct war violence, and many more indirectly. 220,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the fighting at the hands of all parties to the conflict, and more will die in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan as the violence continues. But most observers acknowledge that the number of civilians killed has been undercounted. The true number of civilian dead may be much larger when an adequate assessment is made. For more – see the full Costs of War report.

5. The impact of military spending.

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The increased military spending following 9/11 was financed almost entirely by borrowing.  According to standard macroeconomic models and evidence, rising deficits have resulted in higher debt, a higher debt to GDP ratio because debt has risen faster than income, and higher interest rates. There are many other reasons the debt has grown since 2001, including tax cuts, increases in other government spending, and the effects of the largest postwar recession and the policy response.  But military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have raised annual deficits by about 1 percent of GDP, a trend that the Congressional Budget Office expects to continue through 2020. For more on this issue, see the Costs of War report.

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Previous Five For Friday:

Conversations With History

Iraq War Documentaries

Graphic Novels on Israel & Palestine

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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.

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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, Israeli - Palestinian conflict

(Interview) Tamara Erde: On History, Memory & Living Near the Livings.

Tamara Erde is a French-Israeli filmmaker who creates in various mediums, from documentary and fiction films, to performances and video installations. Erde is a brave artistic soul, often taking from her most personal places and transforming it into her art. In her work, she often deals with political and social issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That is what hits home. I was truly happy to be able to do the following interview and get to know more about Tamara’s work and her personal journey while making it.

Capture/Tamara Erde in Cell in a Human Scale/

Being born and raised in Israel, Israel being a part of your identity, did you have issues when you first started making films about different layers of Israeli – Palestinian conflict? Did you feel your work will be politicized, dissected in a particular way?

Yes, having been born and raised in Israel, and later on deciding to live and work on different, critical aspects of the Israeli society and politics, it has been a rather difficult process, to acknowledge I will face the unsatisfaction and sometimes anger of many of my friends and society in which I grew. I also have my films shown less in Israel then in anywhere else, so this is also a shame for me, as I’d love to show them there too and arouse a discussion about it. But I guess that indeed, once they touch core political problems that are in the basis of the perception and life views there, it is directly politicized and remains only as a political work and not a cinematic, creation as well.

In your documentary film released this year, This is my Land, you focus on how  Palestinian and Israeli (Jewish and Arab) education systems teach the history of their nations. You also confront your own history (in relation to the land) and the way it was built up, created. You admit you first started asking questions and having doubts about the nature of Israeli occupation during the army service. Could you tell me more about this film and the experience of it, but also the story of your personal journey, which could be marked as – before and after – the army service?

I have decided to do this film when I found myself, about two years ago, asking myself how come I didn’t know and didn’t search to know, what I do now, about the history of my country and my region. Because the information is out there, in Internet, in books, in the mouth of people. And for me the direct answer was – the education I got. So that has brought me to wish and come back to Israel but also to Palestine, and see now, from my new perspective, how kids are taught.

Until my army service, I was very zionist and nationalist. I didn’t know much about the conflict, I didn’t have contact with Palestinian people, nor did I think about it too much. My army service was during the second Intifada, I saw then how the decision are taken, how life are being played with for political little reasons, I saw for the first time (even though it was sadly through the information computer screens) Palestinian people. And this has made me start asking question and doubting what I was doing and believing till then. From that I went to a journey of some time, trying to learn and research the story of “the other side”.

Very few children can see through and doubt the education they receive. I am sure that if I had to go back to school, changing the position – going to a Palestinian school, or to an orthodox religious school, I would have been following this sets of values and beliefs. Very few people also doubt or question their education on their later life, as adults. I had the chance to do it thanks to my profession, to my films that have brought me, and still do, to discover and investigate about my identity, and the society I live in, or from which I come.

But even though the ability to change the way a child perceives his education is so small, the ability to change the education we give him, is much more probable, and possible. For me, this voyage I wish to go on with this film, back to this primal encounter with the teachers, and the school, in the place where I was born, which imposes the charge of the conflict, is a way to make myself, and hopefully my viewers, think about the way we can change the education system, and assure a better future society and life for the generations to come. And I think this is true to Israel-Palestine, but also to many other places around the world.

disney ramallah/Disney Ramallah/

Disney Ramallah is your latest short film. It is a story of a father and son in Ramallah, confronted to the harsh reality during the Second Intifada. The boy has one dream – to go to Euro Disney for his birthday. Of course, that is not possible, and the father ends up making a home-made alternative universe for his son. Something in this story, the creative magic and will maybe, reminded me of Yalla to the moonThere is something mesmerizing about these parallel universes people create among the harshest of conditions, which also remindes me of Guido Orefice in La Vitta è Bella. What inspired you to write and direct this story? 

I have written this story basing on my experiences and what I have seen during the Second Intifada when I was in the army, but also what I have seen later on, in the West Bank, when I have met many children and heard their stories and their families stories. One of the things that inspired me mostly was their energy, their hope, their great force of life, even in the harder and most extreme situations. That has made me imagine that boy that all he wants, like many kids, is to go to EuroDisney, and what happened when this meets his father’s harsh daily struggle, who has put aside his childhood dreams and urges.

When I was a child, I grew up alone with my mother, since my dad died before I was born. At nights, sometimes, I used to be afraid that she will die too, leaving me alone in the world. And so, I used to ask her, simply, what if… And she used to tell me the name of her friend; she will take care of you if I die, I talked to her about it, she will adopt you. For some months, years even, I remember, I kept repeating this question, wishing only for one answer: I won’t die.., but she never said this to me. She told me the truth, at simple as it was.

And years later, I kept asking myself about it… What would I do? Do we always need to tell the truth to our children? What does protecting someone means? Hiding from him sometimes? Or on the contrary remaining loyal to the truth? Or maybe creating a different, imagined truth, for those we love. Those questions, daily dilemmas, of parents, of human relationships, are in the heart of Disney Ramallah. In this story, an additional aspect joins those universal story of father and son, since Rabia and Ahmed live in Ramallah, in a complexed reality.

You create in various mediums, not just film. One of your installations and performances is A Soldier’s Dream.  It was influenced by poems of the great Mahmoud Darwish, and aims to give a visual personal adaptation to his writingHomeland, in the context of Israel and Palestine, is a complex term. It involves memories and realities, leaving and returning (in both space and time), waiting and expecting, and generally – an internal state of chaos and confusion. It is not just Darwish who struggles with the notion of homeland. Kanafani writes in Returning to Haifa: “What is a homeland? Is it these two chairs that remained in this room for twenty years? The table? Peacock feathers? The picture of Jerusalem on the wall? The copper lock? The oak tree? The balcony? What is a homeland? Khaldun? Our illusions of him? Fathers? Their sons? What is a homeland? Is it the picture of his brother hanging on the wall?” How do you see this issue of  homeland, and why did you approach Darwish and his poetry through your installations and performances?

It was after my last visit to Israel, on the spring of 2010, that I’ve decided to create this project around the poems ad writing of Mahmoud Darwish. On my return to France after that visit, I felt more then ever helpless, seeing the frozen situation, the immobile misery and injustice that have long ago conquered this land. In front of my eyes I still had this image of the sea, near Gaza, divided by the separation wall, thinking – what else can be done when even the water are bound to surround. I’m looking again, now in France, at the few pictures I’ve managed to take there, at the point where the wall meets the sea, before the soldiers came with their weapons towards me.

Staring at this black and white desperate silence of the water, I recalled Darwish’s texts about the water; “Who says that water has no color, flavor or smell?” [Memory of forgetfulness].

I thought about the relation between words and images when confronting those ungraspable impermeability, where is their limit in view of that, where are there points of force, of challenge and of completion. It was from that desperation that I felt a need to return to the words of Darwish, whose words are imprints of footsteps on this sands of misery, of that surrounding water, and yet, of the whole world outside, of the love and the hope deriving from the simple beauty, form the power of the sincere words, phrases, memories.

In Forgotten Oceans, an experimental dance film, you explore the theme of physical memories of spaces. Again, such an important theme concerning the Israeli – Palestinian conflict, its millions of people living in exile and millions of memories that were and are wiped out. Like Khaled Juma asks in The Unseen aspects of War: “Are the memories we grew up with which are destroyed not pieces of us? Should we not consider the destruction of the places in which we were raised with these memories to be the destruction of a part of us, just like our hands, our heads, or our hearts?” It is like the “my tree was gone” moment from your film. Why did you find it important to make this fim, to do this exploration, and could you relate it to Israeli – Palestinian conflict, from your own perspective?

Actually, this video dance, that I created in an aim to develop and include in a performance piece later on, is also the continuation of my work inspired by Darwish, aims to give a visual personal adaptation to his writing. Being an Israeli I was amazed how many things I have discovered, when reading Darwish’s poems, on my “Homeland”, how close I felt to his words, and how painful it was. His words, have become, to me, a life-time journey, and this performance was part of this journey.

The poetic, the never ending, floating magical words, are living side by side with reality, with the aching sand grains of this land. On the video dance Forgotten Oceans the scene is to describe a “no man’s” land on which all characters are immigrants. Turning around, discovering the new space, the new land that is assumed to be their new “home”, again. A land on which they have no past, no memories or acquaintance, and apparently no future either. They are doomed to eternal wonderings.

forgotten oceans/Forgotten Oceans/

Based on the poetry of Mahmod Darwish; the physical choreographically language of the piece, as well as the visual language, aim to create this sense of “no people” on a “no land”. The characters existence in the space is never substantial, no relation is ever physically created between them. “We live near the livings”, Darwish once wrote about his people, and it s this sense of the term “exile” that I wish to give to the spectators in this piece.

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 /all images via Tamara Erde/

For more on Tamara and her work, visit her website.

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art of resistance, Syria

Letters of Young Somali Refugees to Syrian Refugee Children.

Young Somali refugees living in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya (the world’s largest refugee camp, home to nearly 400,000 refugees) have sent letters of encouragement to Syrian refugee children who have also had to flee their homeland.

In their letters, they write to to their „brothers and sisters“ with great kindness, encouraging them in their hours, days, months of darkness, emphasizing the importance of education and studying.

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Hibo Mahamed Dubow wrote:

„I am really encouraging you not to lose hope, you will get peace and stability. I am encouraging you, I personally , to go to school and learn, in future you can rebuild your country, you will get peace and no longer be a refugee…

 

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Dahir Mohamed wrote:

„Our beloved brothers and sisters, go and work hard in schools, be the stars and the new presidents of Syria.“

 

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Abshir Hussein wrote:

Don’t become hopeless, have less worry about the matter. Try to start a new life which is much better than before. I wish peace for Syria. Always peace is the best.“

 

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Zahra Dahir Ali wrote:

„How are you my dear brothers and sisters? How is the situation over there?

I am encouraging you to be educated in your country and go on with your learning, with your education… So, don’t be hopeless, we are with you, and if there’s war in your country tolerance is necessary.  My friends, I am telling you education is the key to sucess in your life, so be confident and be patient, so I am advising you to go back to your country and rebuild your nation so that it may be good and well.  And the more you get tolerant, the more you get goodness.”

 

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/all images via BBC/

For more, see the article on BBC News.

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