art of resistance, Yemen

Safa Al Ahmad: There’s No Longer A Yemen.

/photo © Alex Potter/

Safa Al Ahmad is a Saudi freelance journalist and filmmaker. Her focus is the Arabian Peninsula, primarily Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and her work so far has been insightful, corageous, informative and mesmerizing in many ways.

She has been reporting on Yemen since 2010, and is one of the rare journalists who spent much time inside the country (she keeps going there) and is able to talk about the complexity of the situation on the ground today.

I am so happy Status Hour recently aired an interview with her. In conversation with Adel Iskandar, Al Ahmad delves into her recent coverage of Yemen reflecting on the humanitarian disaster there, the various actors on the ground, and the gendered dimensions of covering this conflict.

“Fighters are the ones who get salaries these days in Yemen, nobody else does. It just goes to show you how fragile the situation has become. I would argue that there’s no longer a Yemen, North and South are completely separate from each other”, Ahmad says.

Please listen to this important interview and stay informed about the horrendous situation in Yemen, which remains under-reported and totally neglected.

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Iraq, movie/tv propaganda

How Our Mainstream Media Turned Into The ISIS PR Team.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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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, Iraq, movie/tv propaganda

The Book To Read: Robert Fisk & The Age of The Warrior.

This morning I found myself digging through my books, searching for Robert Fisk’s The Age of The Warrior (2008)I did it only to read the preface again. The first time I read this amazing collection of Fisk’s writings, I remember the overwhelming feeling and (already then) the need to go back to and through it again. So I do it, from time to time, and I still discover the power and importance of this preface – so I decided to type it up and share it here.

main_largeRobert Fisk

Iraq, I suspect, will come to define the world we live in, even for those of us who have never been within a thousand miles of its borders. The war’s colossal loss in human life – primarily Iraqi, of course – and the lies that formed a bodyguard for our invasion troops in 2003 should inform our understanding of conflict for years to come. Weapons of mass destruction. Links to al-Qaeda and the crimes against humanity of 11 September 2001. We were fooled. Yet I sometimes believe that we wanted to be fooled – that we wish to be led to the slaughter by our masters, to race for the cliff-edge with the desperate enthusiasm of the suicide bomber, our instincts awakened by something that should have been buried at Hastings or Waterloo or Antietam or Berlin or even Da Nang. Do we need war? Do we need it the way we need air and love and children and safety? I wonder.

Anger is a ferocious creature. Journalists are supposed to avoid this nightmare animal, to observe this beast with ‘objective’ eyes. A reporter’s supposed lack of ‘bias’ – which, I suspect, is now the great sickness of our Western press and television has become the antidote to personal feeling, the excuse for all of us to avoid the truth. Record the fury of a Palestinian whose land has been taken from him by Israeli settlers – but always refer to Israel’s ‘security needs’ and its ‘war on terror’. If Americans are accused of ‘torture’, call it ‘abuse’. If Israel assassinates a Palestinian, call it a ‘targeted killing’. If Armenians lament their Holocaust of 1, 500, 000 souls in 1915, remind readers that Turkey denies this all to real and fully documented genocide. If Iraq has become a hell on Earth for its people, recall how awful Saddam was. If a dictator is on our side, call him a ‘strongman’. If he’s our enemy, call him tyrant, or part of the ‘axis of evil’. And above all else, use the word ‘terrrorist’. Terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror. Seven days a week.

That’s the kind of anger that journalists are permitted to deploy, the anger of righteousness and fear. It is the language of our masters, the Bushes and Blairs and Browns, the Kinkels and the Sarkozy and, of course, the Mubaraks and the King Husseins and the Arabian kings and emirs and the Musharrafs and, indeed, even the crazed Muammar Ghadafi of Libya – who signs up to the war of Good against Evil. For journalists, this has nothing to do with justice – which is all the people of the Middle East demand – and everything to do with avoidance. Ask ‘how’ and ‘who’ – but not ‘why’. Source everything to officials: ‘American officials’, ‘intelligence officials’, ‘official sources’, anonymous policemen or army officers. And if those institutions charged with our protection abuse that power, then remind readers and listeners and viewers of the dangerous age in which we now live, the age of terror – which means that we must live in the Age of Warrior, someone whose business and profession and vocation and mere existence is to destroy our enemies.“

Robert Fisk, The Age of The Warrior (preface)

You can buy  The Age of The Warrior on Amazon, and for more of Fisk’s writings – read his weekly column for the The Independent. Also, I highly recommend his books Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War and The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East.

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