art of resistance, Sudan

Salahi’s Garden & What’s Inevitable.

el_salahi/photo: Behind the Mask 1 by El-Salahi © Haupt & Binder/

Ibrahim El-Salahi is a Sudanese artist, an important figure in African and Arab modernism. El-Salahi is considered a pioneer in Sudanese art and was a member of the Khartoum School that was founded by Osman Waqialla.

Hassan Musa writes about El-Salahi (he first heard stories about him when he was a teenage boy): “I was fascinated by the idea that an ordinary Muslim man could live as an artist, because in my imagination they were unreal creatures who came out of European literature”.

El-Salahi’s international success soon turned him into a national hero, so much so that in 1970 the Department of Tourism distributed a poster in which El-Salahi posed in his studio, with the caption “Sudanese artist at work”.

mid-late-60s-6e_0/photo © Ibrahim El-Salahi, via Tate/

El-Salahi developed his own style and was one of the first artists to elaborate the Arabic calligraphy in his paintings. He developed an iconography from sources in primitive and Muslim art, leading to the formation of the Khartoum School.

He was an assistant cultural attaché at the Sudanese Embassy in London from 1969 to 1972, when he returned to Sudan and became Undersecretary in the Ministry of Culture and Information until September 1975. At that time he was imprisoned without charge for six months.

Deprived of pen and paper, El-Salahi secretly drew designs in the sand during his daily 25 minute exercise break, protected by other prisoners, and quickly erasing his work as the guards approached. He summed up his experience in prison in a series of parables. Hassan Musa mentions his favorite one:

For the first few weeks of detention, we claimed Freedom and Respect according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Then, because the prison food was tasteless, we asked for a few onions.

One day, during the monthly visit of the Director of Prisons, it was my turn to ask for the precious onions. We were given three onions, which were to last us until the next visit. I took a piece of onion and planted it in the damp soil under our earthenware jar of drinking water, hoping to see something growing. When the onion became a plant, my fellow inmates called it ‘Salahi’s garden’.”

ibrahim el salahi/photo © The Inevitable, Ibrahim El-Salahi/

The Inevitable is El-Salahi’s reaction to his time spent in prison: the canvas divided into nine separate sections that represent the different periods of time incarcerated. Niccoló Milanese writes about the painting:

In The Inevitable, eyes are either shaded-out into black voids, or are averted from the viewer. Only a soldier keeps a sideways watch on us. The picture is machine-like, sharp and cold. For there is a demand and a prayer made in each of El Salahi’s designs, and in this picture the questions posed are the same, but here the responsibility is even greater: who will dare to look at this? Who will dare to do something to avoid The Inevitable?”.

In the summer of 2013 a major retrospective show of El-Salahi’s work was mounted at Tate Modern – it was Tate’s first retrospective dedicated to an African artist.

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art of resistance

The Book To Read: Anti-Arab Racism in the USA.

Steven Salaita’s book Anti-Arab Racism in the USA: Where It Comes from and What it Means for Politics Today was published nine years ago and he has had his share of struggles over the last couple of years, but I think this book is worth mentioning over and over again.

41eA3gsZoFL

In the opening chapter of the book, Salaita reflects on his childhood days (in the USA), writing:

Things weren’t much better at school. I was sensitive about my brown skin as early as I can remember because it seemed to inspire fascination among other students, who, as they became more inculcated into American exceptionalism, gradually turned the fascination into scorn. Since my mother, a Nicaraguan of Palestinian origin, taught Spanish at the local middle and high schools, I was treated to continual insults about the Rio Grande, border jumping, refried beans, and laziness. The more knowledgeable students taunted me about riding camels, fucking goats, and bombing the school. By the time I reached high school I quit trying to fight back; the foreign kid never wins crack fights in American schools.

I can’t remember a single instance, from kindergarten to twelfth grade, when a teacher intervened to stop others from insulting me. In fact, at times it was teachers who articulated racism with a cruelty unsurpassed by students. A first-grade teacher once reffered to the warag dawali (grape leaves) my mother had packed me as ‘little pieces of doo-doo’ in front of a crowd of a laughing children. Another teacher once snarled, ‘Don’t ever do that again, you damn foreigner.’ Other examples are less explicit: being sent to the principal’s office an extraordinary amount of times; being suspended for actions that resulted in no punishment for others; being made into the token example of everything ‘foreign’ or ‘international’.

Since all kinds of racism are deeply present in the American society, it is hard to delineate the existence of an anti-Arab racism, because it is often ‘in the mix’ with all the other racisms (like in the childhood examples Salaita gives). However, Salaita links the anti-Arab racism and its special features directly to the moment when the American capitalist system came into contact with the resources of the Arab World. He examines the pre and post 9/11 experiences of anti-Arab racism in the USA with the broader historical patterns of racism in the USA.

Since 9/11, Salaita points out, anti-Arab racism is America’s elephant in the living room. It is very much connected to Islamophobia. In general, there seems to be a great dislike towards everything labeled as Arab, Muslim, Islam. But it doesn’t stop there. On this note, Salaita writes:

Finally, it is necessary to determine against whom Islamophobia is directed. The most immediate answer, of course, is Muslims, but Islamophobia, if we strictly examine its prejudicial functions, appears at times to be directed at non-Muslims such as Arab Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, or even Hispanics – i.e., anybody perceived to be a Muslim, which indicates that Islamophobia doesn’t actually arise from the subject but squarely implicates the purveyor.

A part of the book is also dedicated to the notion of Arab violence. Salaita writes:

My point is a simple one, and I say it with as much clarity as possible: in discussing Arab violence, you either promulgate the assumption that Arabs are irrationally violent, or you simultaneously examine the context in which that violence arises. There is no other option intellectually: you are either a thoroughgoing racist or you take your responsibilities as a citizen and commentator seriously.”

Salaita does a great job connecting his personal stories with various surveys and anaysis of anti-Arab racism, making this an easy and enjoyable read (Salaita, luckily, doesn’t have that off-putting need to show off the language of academia). This is a book one can relate to, but still makes you wonder and question yourself , your thoughts, your society (that’s the part that stirs you up).

Read it.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

A Tale of Love and Darkness

Afghanistan, Were God Only Comes to Weep

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

My Happiness Bears No Relation To Happiness

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art of resistance, India, Iran, Israeli - Palestinian conflict, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia

Five For Friday: Conversations With History.

Conversations With History was conceived in 1982 by Harry Kreisler, as a “way to capture and preserve through conversation and technology the intellectual ferment of our times.” It’s a great series which includes over 500 interviews. Here are five of my favorites concerning various issues related to the Middle East (although there are more than just five great ones, of course).

1. Conversations With History: Tariq Ali

Tariq Ali talks about the creation of Pakistan, issues with India, and the dysfunctionality of the state today. He also talks about Israel, drawing parallels between states with strong religious and ethnic identities and the way that identity cripples them.

2. Conversations With History: Juan Cole

Juan Cole talks about journalism and academia, the way his life changed after the years he spent in Beirut and how he came to do his academic work on Islam.  He also talks about his great blog Informed Comment and the idea behind it.

3. Conversations With History: Amira Hass

Famous Israeli journalist Amira Hass talks about Israeli occupation, Palestinian terrorism, and the consequences of the conflict for the daily lives of both Israelis and Palestinians.

4. Conversations With History: Andrew Scott Cooper

Andrew Scott Cooper discusses his book The Oil Kings. Focusing on the geopolitics of the Middle East in the 1970’s, the book centers on the complex relationship between Nixon, Kissinger and the Shah of Iran. Revealing the contradiction between the Shah’s dependence on the rise of oil prices and the need to fund his new military role, Cooper explains how this contradiction resulted in the Shah’s downfall and the implosion of Iran.

5. Conversations With History: John L. Esposito

John L. Esposito, the author of Who speaks for Islam?, talks about the diversity of the Muslim world, extremism, and the complex forces shaping Islam and its relationship with(in) the West.

• • •

Previous Five For Friday:

Iraq War Documentaries

Graphic Novels on Israel & Palestine

Lectures and Interviews on Middle East & Islam

 

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art of resistance

Five For Friday: Lectures and Interviews on Middle East and Islam.

Five For Friday is a new category on Middle East Revised. Two times a month, on Friday, there’ll be five things to pay attention to concerning MENA region – films, videos, interviews, testimonials, songs, lectures, debates, etc.

This Friday – it’s interviews and lectures – on Middle East and Islam (hot topics of everyday). These five are a must-see.

1. Eqbal Ahmad – Terrorism Ours vs. Theirs 

Just months before his death, Eqbal Ahmad, great Pakistani political scientist and writer, gave this lecture in Colorado.  He talked about who and what defines terrorism.

2. Edward Said – Last Interview

It’s not only that this is the last interview Edward Said gave, it’s that it lasts for more than three hours in which he discusses almost everything. Wonderful!

3. Robert Fisk – State of Denial: Western journalism and the Middle East 

Robert Fisk has given many great lectures during the last couple of decades, but I chose this one for it focuses on the burning issues of the Western mainstream media.

4. Chris Hedges and Sam Harris: Debating Religion (Islam) & Politics (Middle East)

This one is basically – how Chris Hedges exposes the hollowness in the ‘know-it-all’ rethoric of Sam Harris.

5. Edward Said and Salman Rushdie – Ta(l)king The Box Away.

Rushdie and Said are talking about Said’s book After the last sky and the Palestinian experience (“unlike other colonial experiences – we weren’t exploited, we were excluded”, says Said). There’s also a fun story about Israeli broadcasters and Palestinian guerrilla – a cherry on top!

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art of resistance

On Charlie Hebdo: No Man Is An Island.

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

jesuisahmed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10153122_10203524588853948_1692857486_n/Touki Bouki snapshot/

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

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

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

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art of resistance, movie/tv propaganda

West vs. Islam: Playing The Religion Card.

In the spring of 2009, Barack Obama gave his famous Cairo speech. One of his first sentences was:

We meet at a time of great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world, tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate. The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of coexistence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars. More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunites to many Muslims.“

He continues to talk about Islam during the speech, emphasizing the partnership of Islam and America,and the fight against negative stereotypes of Islam.

Now, the terms West vs. Islam or United States vs. Muslims are quite obvious – West is not defined by religion, but (Middle) East continues to be. It is true that the dominant religion in the West is practiced differently and is maybe less obviously present in everyday life (on a personal, not on an institutional level – let’s just say that the influence of the Catholic Church is not be underestimated) and you will probably not see Christians in New York or Sydney praying five times a day, but you will definitely see Muslims doing it in Amman or Sana’a, for example. But, there are so many issues with defining people by their religion primarily.

One of them is that those terms are extremely insulting to Muslims living in the West, people who have spent their lives in – let’s say – USA, and find it as their home, find American identity as an important part of who they are. Saying that we are in conflict with Muslims generally or have an issue with Muslims is problematic for there are 1.5 billions of Muslims in the world, and they belong to diverse communities, different countries, and many, many of them – live and belong to the Western world.

Jocelyne Cesari, Senior Research Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, an the Director of the Islam in the West Program at Harvard University writes how:

One major consequence of such a polarized mindset is to mask the sociological reality of Muslims. In fact, a striking gap exists between the image of Islam as it is constructed in binary public discourse and the multifaceted reality of Muslims across countries and localities. For example, the dominant assumption is that visible Islamic identities in the West are inversely correlated to their civic and political loyalties, while there is empirical evidence that contradicts such an assumption. My book – ‘Why the West Fears Islam – An Exploration of Muslims in Liberal Democracies’ – presents first-hand data from focus groups I organized in Paris, London, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Boston between 2007 and 2010. In this regard, it is the first systematic and comparative review of the existing knowledge about Muslim political behaviours and religious practices in western Europe and in the United States.

The major conclusion is that although Muslims are challenged by their secular environment, they do not experience the incompatibility so intensely debated by western politicians and Salafi preachers alike. Then why is Islam depicted as an obstacle in political discourse and the media? Taking up this intriguing gap, I have attempted to make sense of this disjuncture between what Muslims do and the political construct of the ‘Muslim problem’. During this exploration, liberalism and secularism have appeared as the two major idioms used to make sense of the Muslim presence.

The ‘Islamic Problem’ in Europe is a consequence of immigrant settlement that in the last two decades has been phrased in cultural and religious terms. The fact that Muslims stand at the core of three major social ‘problems’ – immigration; class and economic integration; ethnicity and multiculturalism – has increased the concern about Islamic religion, increasingly seen as the major reason for all problems. I show in my book that in the United States this culturalization of all political issues related to Muslims is more recent and primarily related to security concerns. Therefore, categories of ‘immigrant’ and ‘Muslim’ overlap in Western Europe, unlike in the United States where immigration debates centre on economic and social concerns such as wages, assimilation, and language. The outcome of these social shifts is visible in the apocalyptic turn of the public rhetoric on Islam in Europe. Extreme right political figures like Geert Wilders speak of ‘the lights going out over Europe’ or of ‘the sheer survival of the West’.“

She continues to say:

This ‘new integrationist’ discourse is widely shared across European countries and, interestingly, promoted by former left-wing activists. Gender equality and rejection of religious authority, which were primary left-wing topics of struggle in the 1960s have become in the present decade the legitimate markers of European identity. In these conditions, all groups and individuals are required to demonstrate conformity to these liberal values in order to become legitimate members of national communities. The ‘Moderate Muslims’ label serves this purpose. It creates a distinction that is supposedly not based on Islam as such but on the adherence of Muslims to liberal values.

Strikingly, feminist groups have become key actors of this discourse. Some feminist figures have been particularly vehement against group rights and especially against any Islamic principles that could undermine gender equality. Curiously, this feminist discourse silences the Muslim women that it purports to defend. As a consequence, Muslim women are transformed into subalterns in a way that is similar to the colonial and postcolonial vision of the Muslim subject.“

With their book Who Speaks for Islam? John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed have performed an invaluable service in understanding contemporary Islam and the disparate views of 1.5 billion Muslims.  Relying on the work of the Gallup organization to ascertain the views of Muslims across the world, Esposito and Mogahed have analyzed public opinion in the Islamic world on all of the most important issues of the day. Their analysis provides an excellent foundation for bridging the gaps between the West and the East, and is a great read for all of those who wish to understand this topic.

There are many reasons for us to do so. For example, a 2006 USA Today/Gallup poll found that substantial minorities of Americans admit to harboring at least some prejudice against Muslims and favoring heightened security measures for Muslims a way to help prevent terrorism. The same poll found that 44% of Americans saying that Muslim are too extreme in their religious beliefs.

What is extreme? Isn’t the killing of Dr. George Tiller, a 67-year-old abortion provider who was shot point blank in the forehead as he attended church services in Wichita, extreme? Tiller’s clinic was one of a handful in the USA that performed abortions after the 24th week of pregnancy. Tiller’s case is not an isolated one, and that is only one tiny example of the wrongdoings of extreme Christians. But Tiller’s murderer Shelley Shannon was not chosen as a representative model of Christians by the media, the same way we do not see Army of God banners and flags all over the place as an image depicting Christians.

Donald_Spitz_holds_Army_of_God_BannerDonald Spitz holds Army of God banner. /image via wikipedia/

And I think that is good, since those people and those acts do not represent the majority of Christians or the religion itself (this is not to say that we shouldn’t pay attention to them, but rather not to take them as a standard and representative for all).

Now, the other issue I find disturbing when it comes to West vs. Islam, is that it allows us (Western countries – our governments) to make the religion of Islam responsible for everything bad going on in the (Middle) East. It is a way of reducing people and issues to one thing – a way in which Islam serves as a cover-up of for all the complex realities, identities and historical events of the Middle East. It is extremely ignorant and extremely dangerous. But it is also perfect – since Western governments share a great deal of responsibility for the turmoils of the (Middle) East.

Of course, part of the blame for the religious name-calling lies on the shoulders of incapable Arab leaders who – knowing not how to lead their countries and provide competent solutions for their people and issues they are facing – every now and then talk about Islam like it is going to magically solve everything (but, then again –  Obama also finishes every speech with God bless America, and when we talk about America – we do not say Christians or Christianity).

I believe that the religion is what a person makes of it. All of the holy books – whether it is the Bible, Qur’an, Torah – can be interpreted in many ways. If you are a good person, you’ll find what’s good in it and live by it. If you’re a violent, embittered person, you’ll find in it an excuse to be violent in the name of religion. Like Reza Aslan says in the interview for the CNN: „Islam is just a religion and like any other religion in the world it depends on what you bring to it. If you are a violent person your Islam, your Judaism, your Christianity, your Hinduism is going to be violent.“

So – instead of all the talk about the Islam, we must talk about the legacy of colonialism which continues to make a profound impact on East-West relations today. We must talk about the current distribution of global power, once wielded by Europe and now by the United States, which fuels a sense of alienation, frustration, and mistrust in the Eastern world. To finish this post – let’s just go back to 1996 and Samuel Huntington’s implicit claim in his Clash of Civilizations that there is a collision between the fundamental values of Islamic and Western worlds and that “Islam has bloody borders” , a point of view that justifies the current global power imbalance to the detriment of non-Western cultures and societies. It is time to finally let go of the dirty games, lower passions and superficial explanations we are being fed with.

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art of resistance, Israeli - Palestinian conflict

Remembering Edward Said: In the name of Humanism.

“Humanism is the only – I would go so far as saying the final- resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.

Edward Said

The end of September (25th of September to be precise) marked eleven years without Edward Said, literary theorist and an intellectual who was a founding figure of the critical-theory field of Post-colonialism, and a strong advocate of political and human rights of the Palestinian people. His capital work, Orientalism,  preseneted the Western study of Eastern cultures and, in general, the framework of how The West perceives and represents The East.

It’s hard to label people as heroes in today’s world, but I would say Said was one. Living in exile, he chose not to look the other way and forget the injustice and struggle in his homeland, but to fight, to raise awareness, to dedicate his life, his time, dedicate it to better understanding, to fairness, even if it meant (and it often did) repeating things all the time, hitting the wall all over again. Even in his last years and months, sick and exhausted (over a decade fighting with leukemia), he was writing, giving three hour interviews, and finishing documentaries about Palestine. Now, that’s dedication.

Said’s great intellect and his inexhaustible energy are strongly missed. Many of the things Said wrote about – from  cultural representations of the East to the question of Palestine – remain a hot topic (and a burning issue) today. To commemorate Said and recall the magnitude of his works, I’ve decided to gather some of the great thoughts and excerpts from his books and essays, and provide links to some of his great interviews.

edward saidEdward Said /photo via reformancers/

No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are not more than starting-points, which if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind. Imperialism consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale. But its worst and most paradoxical gift was to allow people to believe that they were only, mainly, exclusively, white, or Black, or Western, or Oriental. Yet just as human beings make their own history, they also make their cultures and ethnic identities. No one can deny the persisting continuities of long traditions, sustained habitations, national languages, and cultural geographies, but there seems no reason except fear and prejudice to keep insisting on their separation and distinctiveness, as if that was all human life was about. Survival in fact is about the connections between things; in Eliot’s phrase, reality cannot be deprived of the “other echoes [that] inhabit the garden.” It is more rewarding – and more difficult – to think concretely and sympathetically, contrapuntally, about others than only about “us.” But this also means not trying to rule others, not trying to classify them or put them in hierarchies, above all, not constantly reiterating how “our” culture or country is number one (or not number one, for that matter).” /from the book Culture and Imperialism/

“The Orient and Islam have a kind of extrareal, phenomenologically reduced status that puts them out of reach of everyone except the Western expert. From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was to represent itself. Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work.” /from the book Orientalism/

In a great interview for Ha’aretz (Said mentions it in the above posted  interview Reflections on Exile with Brian Lamb), Said provides a detailed insight on the issue of Palestine. Ari Shavit describes the meeting with Said:

His hair has turned gray over the past year. The cancerous growth in his stomach bothers him too. Nevertheless, Edward Said is still a very handsome man, punctilious about his appearance and his dress. A silk handkerchief protrudes from his jacket pocket and the gold watch on his wrist glitters when he stretches out his hand to take a sip from the bottle of Pelegrino on his desk.

He exudes charm. The most widely known Palestinian intellectual in the West, he is warm, learned and cunning. Highly political, emotional, with a sense of humor. He skips lightly and gracefully from poetic quotations from Dante to Zionist-damning quotations from Sternhell – and back again. He takes obvious delight in moving between the various languages and between the cultural levels on which he lives. Between the different identities that skitter within him. As though celebrating his ability to be British and American and Arab all at the same time. Both a refugee and an aristocrat, both a subversive and a conservative, both a literateur and a propagandist, both European and Mediterranean.”

In an answer to the question “Is this a symmetrical conflict between two peoples who have equal rights over the land they share?” Said answers:

“There is no symmetry in this conflict. One would have to say that. I deeply believe that. There is a guilty side and there are victims. The Palestinians are the victims. I don’t want to say that everything that happened to the Palestinians is the direct result of Israel. But the original distortion in the lives of the Palestinians was introduced by Zionist intervention, which to us – in our narrative – begins with the Balfour Declaration and events thereafter that led to the replacement of one people by another. And it is continuing to this day. This is why Israel is not a state like any other. It is not like France, because there is continuing injustice. The laws of the State of Israel perpetuate injustice.

This is a dialectical conflict. But there is no possible synthesis. In this case, I don’t think it’s possible to ride out the dialectical contradictions. There is no way I know to reconcile the messianic-driven and Holocaust-driven impulse of the Zionists with the Palestinian impulse to stay on the land. These are fundamentally different impulses. This is why I think the essence of the conflict is its irreconcilability.

“Not one of our political spokespeople—the same is true of the Arabs since Abdel Nasser’s time—ever speaks with self-respect and dignity of what we are, what we want, what we have done, and where we want to go. In the 1956 Suez War, the French colonial war against Algeria, the Israeli wars of occupation and dispossession, and the campaign against Iraq, a war whose stated purpose was to topple a specific regime but whose real goal was the devastation of the most powerful Arab country. And just as the French, British, Israeli, and American campaign against Gamal Abdel Nasser was designed to bring down a force that openly stated as its ambition the unification of the Arabs into a very powerful independent political force.”  /from the book Power, Politics and Culture/

The Orient is watched, since its almost (but never quite) offensive behavior issues out of a reservoir of infinite peculiarity; the European, whose sensibility tours the Orient, is a watcher, never involved, always detached, always ready for new examples of what the Description de l’Egypte called “bizarre jouissance.” The Orient becomes a living tableau of queerness.” /from the book Orientalism/

In his essay Islam Through Western Eyes for The Nation in 1980, Said writes:

„The media have become obsessed with something called ‘Islam,’ which in their voguish lexicon has acquired only two meanings, both of them unacceptable and impoverishing. On the one hand, ‘Islam’ represents the threat of a resurgent atavism, which suggests not only the menace of a return to the Middle Ages but the destruction of what Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan calls the democratic order in the Western world. On the other hand, ‘Islam’ is made to stand for a defensive counterresponse to this first image of Islam as threat, especially when, for geopolitical reasons, ‘good’ Moslems like the Saudi Arabians or the Afghan Moslem ‘freedom fighters’ against the Soviet Union are in question. Anything said in defense of Islam is more or less forced into the apologetic form of a plea for Islam’s humanism, its contributions to civilization, development and perhaps even to democratic niceness.“

He continues to say:

„The Islamic Orient today is important for its resources or for its geopolitical location. Neither of these, however, is interchangeable with the interests, needs or aspirations of the native Orientals. Ever since the end of World War II, the United States has been taking positions of dominance and hegemony once held in the Islamic world by Britain and France. With this replacement of one imperial system by another have gone two things: first, a remarkable burgeoning of academic and expert interest in Islam, and, second, an extraordinary revolution in the techniques available to the largely private-sector press and electronic journalism industries. Together these two phenomena, by which a huge apparatus of university, government and business experts study Islam and the Middle East and by which Islam has become a subject familiar to every consumer of news in the West, have almost entirely domesticated the Islamic world. Not only has that world become the subject of the most profound cultural and economic Western saturation in history–for no non-Western realm has been so dominated by the United States as the Arab-Islamic world is dominated today–by the exchange between Islam and the West, in this case the United States, is profoundly one-sided.“

In this interview with Salman Rusdie, Said talks about the Palestinian experience, saying that unlike other colonial experiences – we weren’t exploited, we were excluded. And that is the essence of the Palestinian struggle.  Let us remember that and let us remember Said.

The 2014 Edward Said Memorial Lecture was held yesterday and you can watch the full lecture by Judith Butler „What is the value of Palestinian lives?“ on The Jerusalem Fund

 

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