art of resistance, India

Arundhati Roy on Returning Her Award to India’s Top Literary Institution.

roy//photo © Stuart Freedman/In pictures/Corbis//

This was published in Jacobin Magazine.

“Although I do not believe that awards are a measure of the work we do, I would like to add the National Award for the Best Screenplay that I won in 1989 to the growing pile of returned awards. Also, I want to make it clear that I am not returning this award because I am ‘shocked’ by what is being called the ‘growing intolerance’ being fostered by the present government.

First of all, ‘intolerance’ is the wrong word to use for the lynching, shooting, burning, and mass murder of fellow human beings. Second, we had plenty of advance notice of what lay in store for us — so I cannot claim to be shocked by what has happened after this government was enthusiastically voted into office with an overwhelming majority*. Third, these horrific murders are only a symptom of a deeper malaise. Life is hell for the living too. Whole populations — millions of Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, and Christians — are being forced to live in terror, unsure of when and from where the assault will come.

Today we live in a country in which, when the thugs and apparatchiks of the New Order talk of ‘illegal slaughter’ they mean the imaginary cow that was killed — not the real man that was murdered. When they talk of taking ‘evidence for forensic examination’ from the scene of the crime, they mean the food in the fridge, not the body of the lynched man.

We say we have ‘progressed’ — but when Dalits are butchered and their children burned alive, which writer today can freely say, like Babasaheb Ambedkar once did, that ‘To the Untouchables, Hinduism is a veritable chamber of horrors,’ without getting attacked, lynched, shot, or jailed? Which writer can write what Saadat Hassan Manto wrote in his ‘Letter to Uncle Sam’?

It doesn’t matter whether we agree or disagree with what is being said. If we do not have the right to speak freely we will turn into a society that suffers from intellectual malnutrition, a nation of fools. Across the subcontinent it has become a race to the bottom — one that the New India has enthusiastically joined. Here too now, censorship has been outsourced to the mob.

I am very pleased to have found (from somewhere way back in my past) a National Award that I can return, because it allows me to be a part of a political movement initiated by writers, filmmakers, and academics in this country who have risen up against a kind of ideological viciousness and an assault on our collective IQ that will tear us apart and bury us very deep if we do not stand up to it now.

I believe what artists and intellectuals are doing right now is unprecedented and does not have a historical parallel. It is politics by other means. I am so proud to be part of it. And so ashamed of what is going on in this country today.

*For the record, I turned down the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2005 when the Congress was in power. So please spare me that old Congress vs BJP debate. It’s gone way beyond all that. Thanks.”

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art of resistance, Egypt

BuSSy: A Place For Untold Gender Stories.

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BuSSy is a performing arts project that has been slowly changing Egypt for the last ten years. It aims to empower men and women to express themselves and talk about the things that are “not to be talked about”. Through storytelling, they raise awareness about social issues that are crippling Egypt nowadays. To find out more about BuSSy and their efforts, I talked with Nadia Elboubkri, BuSSy’s project manager.

When and how did the BuSSy project start? What was the motivation behind it?

In 2005, the American University in Cairo hosted a performance of the Vagina Monologues. Many female students felt the performance was daring but irrelevant to Egyptians. And in reaction to that… BuSSy was born! In 2006, a group of female students started The BuSSy project – an annual performance of true stories of women in Egypt. The very first BuSSy performance was a collection of stories submitted by women in response to a flyer that read: “If you have a story about yourself or a woman you know, please pick up a submission form and share it.”
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The monologues, which were written and performed by women, for women, exposed real women’s stories and provided for the first time in Egypt, a space for free expression on issues that society often failed/refused to address.

Despite  being constantly subjected to censorship attempts from both the private theaters and state owned ones, BuSSy was able to carry on and expand further. In 2010 the project developed its scope to include stories of both women and men. Both genders are invited to share their personal experiences during the workshop and later on stage.

In 2012, we began working on a larger scale, instead of one workshop and one performance. We started conducting several workshops around Cairo to produce different performances each year that include stories of both genders. Some of the performances and workshops revolved around specific timely/relevant themes such as harassment incidents during protests and domestic violence.

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You’ve been holding performances on stages all over Egypt for the last couple of years. What are the biggest obstacles you faced on your way?

The issues that BuSSy often discusses in our workshops are often taboo in Egypt, rarely spoken about publicly, and often women are shamed and considered dishonorable if they are sexually violated, let alone if they speak about it in public forum.
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BuSSy gives women a space to discuss these stories, whether anonymously or with their own names… Though many choose to remain anonymous. We hold workshops in cities all over Egypt, and invite women from all walks of life to come and share their stories with us. Then, we put the stories together into a performance, and the women [if they so choose] go on stage and share their stories.
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This all sounds a lot easier than it is… Often we are faced with community backlash – community members heckle the storytellers on stage, some women are forced to hide their identities, we can’t feature some of our storytellers on film, or publish their pictures on social media.
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We are also subject to government censorship. Most recently we were forced out of a government venue [the Cairo Opera House] because a performance we were invited to give there discussed issues that were deemed “immoral” by the government, such as masturbation and sexual education.
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Because of this, we are now crowdfunding for our own space, because we promise a safe and judgment-free environment for our storytellers, and that has become increasingly difficult to find…sometimes we hold workshops in unsafe neighborhoods, or rehearsals in parking lots, and even our own living rooms, because we can’t find a space to work.
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Gender issues are in the focus of your activism. Through your stories, what are the big issues Egyptian women and men face in relation to gender roles and expectations?
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Many of the common issues that Egyptian women and men face are related to the high rates of sexual violence, which has its roots in the occupation of public space and culture-based gender dynamics. A common thread in our workshops is street harassment, and women feeling scared or ashamed to go outside in public, often spending excessive time deliberating about what to wear, where to walk, etc.
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For men, similar issues arise, there exists harassment of males, though it isn’t always discussed. Our workshops help both genders find connections with others who have had similar experiences, and show them they are not alone, which empowers them to step on stage and tell others,thereby raising awareness about the issue.
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Having this space to express often hidden stories from all parts of the society is of incredible importance to many. What were the reactions of people when BuSSy project started and how did it change throughout the years? Were they scared in the beginning? And do you have bigger support now?
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Bussy is fortunate to have a large and loyal support base in Cairo, when we hold workshops and performances they are almost always sold out. However, we still have our fair share of difficulties in addressing the public. Many audience members are shocked during our performances, people have walked out during a show, or addressed us afterwards to tell us their thoughts.
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However, many of our audience members are the opposite too–cheering us on, or wanting to join us in our next workshop and performance. In cities outside of Cairo, because we are very new to them, it takes longer to thaw the ice. Our workshops have been a great way to connect with the community, and after getting to know the storytellers, we find that they also become willing to step on stage and speak about issues that have never been publicly addressed in their communities. They are breaking ground in their communities!
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You’ve mentioned the cooperation with other theatres – private and state owned ones. What was the case most of the times – were they ready to cooperate with you or were there censorhip efforts?
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Ever since it’s birth BuSSy has been facing a lot of difficulties finding spaces to hold the workshops and rehearsals.
We have held workshops and rehearsals in school court yards, garages, flats, public cafe, rented rooms, bookshops…
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For BuSSy to continue to share with the world the remarkable histories of our storytellers, we need a safe and open space to hold our workshops, create other activities that would help sustain the project on the long run, and help it operate independently away from censorship and content-controlling funding – which is commonly practiced by hosting venues.
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It depends on the circumstances, the legality, and the independence of the venue. But, anytime we are asked to submit a script for review or to censor our language, we respectfully decline holding our performance in that particular venue. It is one of our most important principles to share the stories exactly how they are told to us.
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BuSSy is currently crowdfunding to create a space for women and men to speak up about their untold gender stories. What would be your hope and dream for the future?
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Our crowdfunding campaign is not only aiming to acquire our own space to hold workshops and events, but we are also seeking to become self-sustaining within the next few years. We plan to hold regular storytelling workshops, open-mic events, mini-performances, and more in our new space, and hopefully, over time, we can support our own activities, particularly our activities outside of Cairo.
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/all photos © BuSSy/
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The Croatian version of the interview can be found on Libela.
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art of resistance, Israeli - Palestinian conflict

Suad Amiry: Ramallah Diaries (excerpt).

I wrote about Suad Amiry’s Sharon and my Mother-in-Law last year, but today I decided to post this excerpt to get you excited about the book – if you haven’t read it already. The book is a result of her Ramallah diaries (from 1981 to 2004), where she described her everyday life under occupation.

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” ‘You kick us out of Jaffa, then wonder how come we’re born elsewhere!’

These were the first words to gush out of my mouth when I opened it to answer the first in a long list of questions asked by the Israeli security officer at Lod (Tel Aviv) airport.

I was certainly not in the mood. It was 4.30 in the morning on a hot summer day in 1995. The almost five-hour flight from London had fatigued me and all I wanted to do was rush out of the airport to meet Ibrahim, who had sweetly come all the way from Ramallah to pick me up at this very early hour.

My anxiety and irritation increased as the young woman at passport control slipped a pink tag into my Palestinian passport. I, of course, have no problems either with pink, or with being Palestinian. But at that very moment, all I wanted was a white tag. As I had experienced many times before, pink automatically meant at least an extra hour with security officers at the airport. Oh, how I wanted a white tag this time! I was simply not in the mood.

‘How come you were born in Damascus?’ The officer repeated, obviously neither pleased nor satisfied with my impulsive reply. I was not in the mood to tell the security officer that in 1940 my father, who had come to Beirut from Jaffa, was overwhelmed the minute he saw my Damascene mother. She was eighteen, he was thirty-three. He had graduated from the American University of Beirut some twelve years before, while she was still a student at the British Syrian Training College. The minute he stepped inside the grandiose courtyard of her family mansion in Damascus old town, and realized how rich her merchant father was, his dream of marrying this dashingly beautiful, tall woman with greenish-grey eyes started to fade. In the end, this particular dream was fulfilled, but many others were shattered, and my father and mother lived a tormented life together.

In December 1978 my father died of a heart attack in Prague while attending a writers’ conference. The well-known Palestinian writer Emile Habibi was the last person to see my father alive and spend the evening with him. I was not in the mood to inform the Israeli security officer that every time my mother got pregnant, she went back to Damascus to give birth. In 1943, 1944 and 1949, she travelled between Jerusalem and Damascus to give birth to my sisters, Arwa (now a psychologist living in Amman) and Anan (a sociologist now living in America), and, much later, to my brother, Ayman (a diplomat). She also travelled between Amman and Damascus where I was born two years after that. I did not want to admit to this as it would only complicate matters and would certainly increase the security officer’s fears for Israel’s security, thus prolonging the interrogation.

‘Have you ever lived in Damascus?’ he asked.
‘No,’ came my brief answer.

I was not in the mood to tell the officer that until the age of eighteen, when I left Amman to study architecture at the American University of Beirut, my workaholic mother, who owned a publishing and printing firm, looked forward to getting rid of her four children every summer.

The very first week of our summer vacation, she sent us off to her parents’ house in Damascus or to her relatives in Beirut. My brother Ayman and I were more than happy to spend part of the summer vacation with our unmarried aunts, Nahida and Suad (after whom I was called), who totally spoiled us and my two teenage sisters. 

‘Do you have relatives in Syria?’
‘No.’ End of conversation.

I was not in the mood to tell the security officer at Tel Aviv airport that my mother was the youngest in a family of eleven, and that was just her nuclear family. I did not want to scare him by saying that I had four aunts and four uncles, and over twenty cousins. They and their families all lived in Damascus.

It would have been difficult for me to explain to him that I have always envied my parents, and even my grandparents, for living at a time when residing in, or travelling between, the beautiful cities of the region was not such a big deal and did not call for security checks. I was always intrigued when my father described his trips between Jaffa and Beirut, which included lunch at a seaside restaurant in Sidon. I was even more intrigued when my mother described to me how in 1926, as a child of four, she had visited her mother’s family, the Abdulhadis, in the village of ‘Arrabeh in Palestine. I have always been enchanted by their route between Damascus and ‘Arrabeh, which took them down the Yarmouk valley through the beautiful plains of Marj Ibin ‘Amer and Sahel Jenin. ‘First we went to our relatives in Nablus, and a few days later we went on horses to the village of ‘Arrabeh,’my mother would say. It was the horse ride which fascinated my mother, whereas it was the impossibility of taking such a trip between ‘Arrabeh and Damascus now which bothered me more.

The security man handed me and my passport over to a security woman sitting in a room behind a desk, then disappeared, leaving me alone with her. She flipped through my passport, and asked assertively,

‘And what were you doing in London?’

‘I went dancing,’ I answered, looking her straight in the eye, with an expressionless, tired face, and a voice even more assertive than hers.

‘Do you think you’re being funny?’ she said, her voice louder and more serious.
‘No. And do YOU have any problem with dancing?’ My voice now much lower and more sarcastic.
‘What was the purpose of your visit to London?’
‘Dancing,’ I insisted.

‘You know that failing to cooperate with us on security matters will result in your arrest?’ ‘Fine’, I replied, quickly resigned to this ridiculous verdict, ‘but I need to go out and inform poor Ibrahim, who has been waiting outside the airport for hours to pick me up.’

‘No, you are not permitted to go; and who is Ibrahim? Is he a relative?’

I was not in the mood and I did not want to tell the two security officers that Ibrahim was not exactly a relative, as none of my relatives, and neither my husband nor any of my friends from Ramallah, are allowed to come pick me up from the airport. I wondered if the officers knew that I, like many other Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories, needed many types of permits to move about: a permit to enter Jerusalem, another to go out to Jordan, a third to enter Israel, a fourth to work in Israel, an impossible one to enter Gaza, and a four-hour permit to use the airport, which gives you just enough time to get there with no flat tyres or accidents, lasamahallah (God forbid). Ibrahim is one of two or three taxi drivers in Ramallah who happen to have a car with a yellow licence plate, which allows him to pick up passengers from the airport.

I was not exactly in the mood to tell the officer that one of my dreams is simply for my husband to be able to pick me up from the airport or from Allenby Bridge when I come back from a trip. But that is a privilege no Palestinian has.”

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art of resistance, Israeli - Palestinian conflict, Palestine

Gaza: Parkour, All the Way.

Parkour is on the rise in Gaza for several years now, and I already wrote about the beauty and freedom it brings to Palestinians (another great example is the story of a surf club in Gaza). It is all about breaking from conventional paths in life and finding your own. As Abdullah Enshasy, who co-founded the Gaza parkour team with Mohammed Aljkhbeer, explains it:

“There is a big relationship between parkour and barriers that we’re surrounded by in the Gaza strip. There’s the blockade, walls are everywhere. …parkour gives us a sense of freedom and allows us to endure these conditions without getting deeply depressed.”

And now, after Israel’s nearly two-month assault over the summer, parkour is blooming in Gaza again. These photos show Palestinian kids doing parkour in a heavily battered Shuja’iyya neighbourhood in Gaza.

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//all images © Mohammed Salem / Reuters//

For more on parkour in Gaza, see Gaza Parkour and Free Running facebook page.

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