art of resistance

Call For Papers: Towards An Arab Left Reader.

borovoy-169hero-5mffnanowrimo-istock//illustration: iStock.com/Marvid//

Why is there as yet no reader or anthology of Arab leftist thought in English translation? If that question is of interest to you, read on.

The workshop will take place at the University of Cambridge, from 12- 14 April 2018. It will bring together an international group of scholars and translators from a wide range of disciplines to identify, discuss and translate a selection of documents that have played a pivotal role in the formation of socialist, anti-colonial and democratic thought in the Arab world.

The ultimate outcome of this gathering will be the publication of the first English-language Arab left reader, in which translated documents will be accompanied by essays that locate them within a larger historical, political and translational context. The collection aims to bring Arab leftist traditions into conversation with other non-Western and international political texts now available in English, as well as to function as a pedagogical tool and a resource for those interested in political thought in the Arab world.

The workshop will be comprised of six panels on the following themes:

1) Political Mobilization & Muslim Societies

2) Turath: Heritage and Cultural Decolonization

3) Literary Aesthetics and Politics

4) Nation, State and Liberation

5) Feminism and Gender Equality

6) Political Economy

Call for papers:

Proposals for texts on one of the above panel subjects (including party or anonymous tracts, collectively authored documents, etc) are invited for inclusion in the reader. After the workshop, participants who will contribute to the reader should be prepared to translate the entirety of their proposed text, and offer a short summation of its location in broader Arab leftist thought and political practice.

You should submit the following by October 15, 2017:

  • 400 word abstract with the following: description of the text and its author, including bibliographic information (date of production, length, publisher (if any), etc; and political location of text (i.e. when and why was it written, intended audience, distribution method), as well as the relevance of the text to the topic of your chosen panel (please state clearly on which panel you wish to present)
  • 1-2 paragraphs of proposed text in original Arabic and English translation.

Send the proposals to arableftreader@gmail.com.

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art of resistance, Palestine

(Interview) Jehan Bseiso: This Is Not A Border.

JB by Ahmed Fouda/Photo by Ahmed Fouda/

Jehan Bseiso is a Palestinian poet, researcher and aid worker. Her poetry has been published inWarscapesThe FunambulistThe Electronic Intifada, and Mada Masr among others. Her book I Remember My Name (2016) is the creative category winner of the Palestine Book Awards. Bseiso is co-editing Making Mirrors a new anthology by, for and about refugees. Her work also appears in an anthology marking a decade of the Palestine Festival of Literature titled This is Not a Border (published by Bloomsbury Press, 2017).

She is currently working on a collection of poems: Conversations Continued, a compilation of real, misheard, and misremembered conversations. Bseiso has also been working with Médecins sans Frontières /Doctors Without Borders since 2008.

To me, Jehan’s work embodies the pride, dignity, love, defiance, resistance and bravery expressed in one sentence/thought/sentiment – This is not a border (also the title of an anthology of PalFest). In that spirit, This is not a border entails a vision of a different landscapes of today and tomorrow, a desire and determination to write one’s own narrative and own who you are, it means challenging power and staus quo, and finally – it’s an expression of love. With that in mind, Jehan and I meet again.

Our meeting is not in cafés on Hamra in Beirut, where we hugged for the first time, nor watching the blue horizon stretching all around tiny Croatian islands, which we both keep under our eyelids – but typing e-mails, thousands of kilometres apart – the same way we started talking four years ago, when I contacted her for the first time, intrigued by her poetry. We discuss borders, wars, diaspora, homeland, love…

Just last month, a new Israeli construction plan to cut off Ramallah from East Jerusalem was presented. The project would add 1,100 housing units to the settlement of Geva Binyamin. In his book Palestinian walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape, Raja Shehadeh captures the changing landscape of (the idea of) Palestine. How do you personally deal with that landscape?

Before I visited Palestine for the first time in 2012, its landscape was emotional and imaginary, both known and unknowable. Now if I close my eyes I can see the occupation’s determination to violate and violence the land. Only couple of days ago, settlers set farmland on fire near Nablus and Palestinians were prevented even from putting it out, they were forced to watch it burn.

I actually had the good fortune of walking the hills of Ramallah with Raja Shehadeh in May 2016 and 2017 as part of the Palestine Festival of Literature activities. With a group of international writers and artists from all over the world, we walked the hills of Ramallah, reflecting on the way the occupation marks and transforms the lands.

In her poem Gaza Hala Alyan writes: This is diaspora… This is dont change the channel/the least you can do is watch. In your poem Gaza, From the Diaspora Part Two, you write: Dear Diaspora, Boycott. Could we talk about the diaspora experience – its mixture of guilt, loss, misremembering, responsibility, fatal loving –how can one unravel that web?

I think of that beautiful poem by Hala as an alarm bell and a prayer for the diaspora.
The first time I heard the word diaspora, I was in a classroom and the teacher wanted someone to explain it in English and translate it into Arabic. No one could, she singled me out that day and said you should know what it means, you’re Palestinian – Al Shatat. Since then I’ve felt a strange affinity with the word. For me diaspora is a layer of citizenship you can choose to opt out of; when you are physically so far away, you can decide to switch off mentally and emotionally.

There is apathy dust that can settle on the diaspora that I like to challenge; which is why I call on them in some of my poems, asking them to engage, read, listen, ask questions. The thing is, even those who are on the move willingly, for education, for work, for a better future with better prospects are also leaving home and homeland behind. The Palestinian diaspora cannot go back, that’s what the right of return is all about.

In connection to the previous question, I will ask you a question asked by Ghassan Kanafani in Returning to Haifa – what is a homeland, after all?

For refugees forced to flee, homeland is a ball of fire they’re running fast as possible away from. For others, born and raised in refugee camps, homeland is a place beyond the sun, accessible only in dreams.

For me, Home is not a physical place, it’s a warm feeling radiating through all the little details that make our lives worth living. A perfect cup of coffee in the morning, made with exactly the right amount of milk, hearing my mother’s laugh, holding the hands of the man I love as the plane takes off. The truth is that I feel at home everywhere I go because after a certain point you carry all those details with you.

Homeland on the other hand is a very specific shape on the map, often misnamed and misrepresented. As a Palestinian born, raised, and living outside Palestine, homeland is on the other side of the border. It’s in the questions of the private security company contractors hired by the Israeli government at Allenby bridge, it’s the look on my grandmother’s face when she talks about orange fields and blue Gaza waters. Homeland is every time I say “occupied Palestine” when someone says Israel, in the little narrow streets of the old city in Jerusalem.

I often wonder how my children will understand or experience homeland, it’s not like I was indoctrinated by my parents, I was never told or forced to feel anything. I gravitated to homeland in my writing, my sense of grave injustice took me there, my heart travelled first and then my body followed. 

You are one of the authors featured in the anthology I Remember My Name, together with Ramzy Baroud and Samah Sabawi. The book was the creative category winner of the Palestine Book Awards. How did you get involved in this project and how important is it for you to have your work published in collaboration with other poets?

I Remember My Name is the quintessential diaspora project; all of us come from Gaza but Ramzy lives in the US, Samah lives in Australia and I was in Cairo when we started talking about the anthology. Editor Vacy Vlazna and artist David Borrington put their heart into it and when it finally came together we were all so proud.

Until today, I’ve only met David – we went to London together to receive the award on behalf of Ramzy, Samah and Vacy. Having my work in such good company is very important to me, and most recently two of my pieces appear in an anthology marking a decade of the Palestine Festival of Literature titled This is Not a Border (first published by Bloomsbury Press in the UK).

You’ve been working for Médecins Sans Frontièrefor almost nine years. Was it hard to keep it going parallel with  your writing, which is, I assume, taking more of your time and energy? You once beautifully said there’s work in your poetry, and poetry in your work – is that the key?

Yes! That’s my new motto: poetry in work, and work in poetry.
As a literature graduate I was told I have two choices, write or teach. I would love to write or teach full time at some point, but for now I made a different choice by joining Médecins Sans Frontières with whom I’ve been working in places near home like Iraq and Libya but also further away like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somali region of Ethiopia.

When I joined MSF I actually hid the fact that I was a poet from everyone because I wanted to be taken seriously as a humanitarian worker. However, despite all my efforts to choose between poetry and MSF I have so far failed miserably. My poems are about love and war, heartbreak and refugees dying at sea in their attempt to run away from poverty and conflict. Poetry is now a site of intersection that displays the explosive choices i’ve been making as an aid worker and a writer.

How did working for Médecins Sans Frontières change you? Is there a specific MSF moment you will remember – a trip somewhere, or meeting someone?

I met two lovers in detention two years ago, they were criminalized even just for trying to escape war and poverty. They attempted to leave by boat to Europe more than once, they were arrested several times, but they still had so much determination and hope it was amazing. They finally succeeded to get on a boat, and it sank, leaving one of them alive and the other dead. When I think of love, I think of the way they looked at each other in detention, the way he was worried about her when we took her to the hospital because she was ill. Somehow that was one of the most moving encounters I’ve had.

A colleague once told me that the more he travels and works with MSF, the more he realizes how much we all have in common, despite our insistence on all the details that make us different. We all want the same things; love, success, community, a better future, dignity in life and death. 

Nowhere refuge, only refugees, you write. How important is it for you to respond to the burning issues of our time through your poetry – one of them being the crisis of European refugee policy?

The media is reporting about refugee fatigue and compassion fatigue. I find the notion that compassion can be finite truly terrifying. I spend a lot of time looking at facts and figures, and reading “human stories”; I prefer just saying “stories”, because humanity is obvious, once we start having to state that the refugees are “also human-look at them!” we are catering to anti-refugee propaganda even with the best of intentions.

Like many people I can say that i’m haunted by the refugee crisis, and it’s a global one. I’m haunted at my work, by the images of bodies clinging to orange life vests, and i’m haunted at night when I think of how random it is, that it’s not me, not my family.

People must realize as you mention that it’s not a European refugee crisis, but one that is being exacerbated by European refugee policy. It is also a global refugee crisis. For example, hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing conflict and famine in South Sudan and seeking safety in Uganda. Few people are aware that Uganda is now hosting more than 1.3 million people, more than any country in Europe at the height of the “European refugee crisis”.

I currently live in Lebanon, a country where one in four is a Syrian refugee, and at least 400,000 Palestinian refugees have been living in camps for more than 50 years – it’s impossible to ignore the refugee crisis, and its political and economic drivers.

You are co-editing Making Mirrors, a new anthology by, for and about refugees. The anthology is challenging the objectified, passive refugee narrative. Can you tell us more about it?

The plan is to offer a volume of poetry by, about, and for refugees, that seeks to connect artistic voices of those fleeing violence from Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, Somalia, Iraq, and other war torn countries. I am editing this anthology with US poet and scholar Becky Thompson, and our hope is that Making Mirrors will provide a multilingual interactive, collaborative volume of poems that will be published as a book and also a website.

Among those whose work is set to be included in the collection are prominent poets Naomi Shihab NyeZeina Hashim BeckZeina Azzam, and Hala Alyan. We have received incredibly powerful poetry from first-time writers, in different languages, and we are currently working on holding writing workshops to generate more poetry from within refugee communities. 

In one of our previous talks, you said how women from the MENA region are portrayed either as victims or superheroes, and that is too much of a burden. Just last month, Mashrou Leila put out a new video, for the song Roman. The video aims to “celebrate and champion a coalition of Arab and Muslim women, styled to over-articulate their ethnic background, in a manner more typically employed by Western media to victimise them”. Do you feel the victim/superhero narrative is being more challenged nowadays, with efforts such as this one?

I think a lot more needs to be done in order to dislodge Western media’s obssession with the victim/superhero narrative in the portrayal of both men and women from the MENA region; and now you can also add terrorist to that oppressive framework so it’s victim/terrorist/superhero.

I am a big fan of Mashrou Leila; I find their music and lyrics original, subversive and full of heart and mind. That video is like a good poem, it recalls and disrupts images, ideas and narratives from a perspective of expansion; you always end up with more at the end. This is precisely what I love about poetry; freedom of interpretation and play.

You are performing your poetry all over the world and working on a collection of poems, Conversations Continued, which is a compilation of real, misheard, and misremembered conversations. What has that process been like so far?

I have divided the poems in Conversations Continued into three main chapters; Conversations Homeland is mostly about Palestine and the search for home inside and outside, Conversations Habeebi is about love, its necessity and impossibility sometimes. In Conversations ThawraI write about hope and despair in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring”. Many of the pieces started as incomplete letters, facebook posts, interrupted conversations all distilled into poems.

I am always listening to people talking around me, because I am fascinated by what we call “ordinary” use of language in conversation – I find it actually quite extraordinary.

Finally, what are you reading at the moment, can you share some words/thoughts that have inspired you lately?

In a world that continuously divides and conquers our concentration, lately I have become a reader with commitment and attention span issues. This is why I read more than one thing at a time. Currently I am in awe of Look by Solmaz Sharif; her writing perches at that intersection between politics and poetry, art and life – it’s an important collection of poems, one that needs to be studied not only read. I am also going in and out of Hisham Matar’s The Return and rereading a collection of dark and somber short stories by the inimitable Ghassan Kanafani.

• • •

This interview was also published in Croatian, on H-Alter.

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art of resistance

Saleem Haddad | Guapa (Excerpt).

hb_59-204-1/Black Place II by Georgia O’Keeffe/

Saleem Haddad’s first novel Guapa was published earlier this year, by Other Press. It takes place over the course of a single day, and is about Rasa, a gay man in an unnamed Arab country.

Rasa spends his days translating for Western journalists, and pining for the nights when he can sneak his lover, Taymour, into his room. Then one morning Rasa’s grandmother, the woman who raised him, catches them in bed together. Following is an excerpt from the book, first published on Vice Reader.

The memory returns to me so vividly I feel I am back there, at 14, in the backseat of that taxi. At the time my father had been dead for 18 months, my mother had vanished the year before that, I was magically sprouting hair in places I was not expecting, and I was still sharing a bed with Teta.

I was returning from a history lesson at Maj’s house. We were both struggling with the material. Our school followed the British curriculum, which meant we had to study the history of Europe and the World Wars: the Kaiser, the Treaty of Versailles, then Churchill and Stalin. It all seemed like another universe to us, so Teta and Maj’s mother agreed to share the costs of a private tutor.

I hailed a taxi outside Maj’s house and got into the backseat, as Teta directed me to do when riding in taxis alone. The man behind the wheel was young, though I couldn’t make out his age: perhaps 18, maybe 20. He was wearing a tight red T-shirt that gripped his body. He drove without speaking. A familiar pressure inside me began to build. It was a terrible choking sensation that had been growing in the months since I lost my parents. I had no control over my destiny, and everything around me could suddenly die or run away.

I rolled down the window and pressed the back of my head against the leather seat. The crisp November air felt cold against my face, releasing the pressure somewhat. Through the streetlights, which lit up the inside of the car in recurring waves, I saw that the driver’s forearms were potholed with scars. I admired the way his T-shirt stretched tightly against his chest. His arms broke out in large goose bumps.

“Shut the window, it’s cold,” he said. I rolled up the window, feeling the choking sensation close in on me once more. I watched the muscles in the driver’s arms tighten as he shifted gears. The large veins running under his skin awoke a sensation inside me I had never felt before. I wanted to connect with him in some way, to be closer to him somehow.

“Is this your taxi?” I asked.

guapa

“My brother’s,” he said. His jaw clicked as he chewed a piece of gum. He sighed and put one arm behind the passenger seat while steering with the other. I looked at the hand resting behind the seat. His fingers were decorated with gold and silver rings. Dark black dirt was wedged underneath his fingernails. I glanced down at my own fingernails, which Doris had clipped earlier that day.

I tried to imagine what this man’s life was like, outside of this taxi. His rough accent meant he probably lived in al-Sharqiyeh, maybe in a tiny room that smelled of fried onions and cigarettes, because that’s what I imagined al-Sharqiyeh would smell like.

How much did we have in common, he and I? If I knew then what I know now, I would have put our differences down to a complex algorithm of class and culture. But back then I did not know about any of that, so I stuck to what we had in common: the car we were both sitting in.

“Do you drive this taxi often?” I asked.

“One or two nights a week,” he replied, making a turn into the side street that took us off the highway and toward my new neighborhood downtown.

“Do you enjoy it?”

“Enjoy what?” His eyes flicked up to look at me through the rearview mirror. His eyes were a cool gray, almost silver. “Driving the taxi,” I said, holding his gaze as I played with the dog-eared corners of the history books on my lap.

“It’s just a job,” he said, turning back to the road. “Well what do you like doing when you’re not driving the taxi? Do you watch television?” Teta fed me on a diet of dubbed Mexican telenovelas, American television shows, and an endless stream of news. Perhaps his television set also showed those channels.

“I don’t have spare time. When I’m not driving, I work on a construction site.”

The next turn would take us to my street. I felt a sudden panic. I wanted to spend more time with this man. We were moving closer to something new and exciting. I wanted to be his friend.

And not just any friend, not like Maj or Basma, but a friend who would always be around, someone I could hug and be close to. My insides were buzzing. I wanted him to keep on driving, to take me out of this sad town, far away from that empty apartment with Doris and Teta.

“Is that why you have big muscles?” I scrambled to find a way to delay our separation. He glanced at me, studied my face for a while, clicked his chewing gum. Then his lips turned to form a crooked smile.

“Come up here and sit next to me,” he said.

I hesitated. It would be eib to say no, although it also felt eib to say yes. Stuck between two eibs, I left the books in the back and climbed into the passenger seat. We drove past Teta’s apartment. He took a right into a dark street and parked the car between two large trees.

He unzipped his jeans and pulled out his thing. It stood between us, hard, like an intruder to an intimate conversation. Instinctively, I reached out and grabbed it, and he let out a slight moan. I studied the thing in my hand, feeling it grow in my palm.

okeeffe/Black Iris by Georgia O’Keeffe/

“Yalla,” he whispered as his eyes scanned the area. “Huh?”

“Put your mouth on it,” he said impatiently.

I swallowed and bent down. He smelled sour and hot. I put his thing in my mouth and looked up for further instructions.

“Wet your mouth, wet your mouth,” he hissed. “Your tongue is like sandpaper.”

I swallowed a few more times until my mouth was wet, and this time the process went more smoothly. He seemed happy with this and sighed. He pressed down on my neck but he remained alert, his head darting back and forth as if following a game of tennis. I was down for a few minutes when my excitement began to disappear, replaced with a strong sense of guilt that I was making a terrible mistake.

I struggled, concentrating on breathing through my nose and not gagging each time he pushed my head down. I wasn’t sure how long this would last. He groaned. My mouth filled with salty slime. The warm hand at the back of my neck disappeared.

“Get out now before someone sees,” he said, zipping his trousers up. I wiped my mouth, took my books from the backseat, and got out of the car. The man started up the engine, reversed out onto the road, and sped off.

I looked around. There was no one. The awkward feeling slowly disappeared, and the memory of what happened seemed sweeter. I stored bits of it for later: the warm hand on the back of my neck, the sour smell, the shape of his thing in my mouth. I relived those memories as I walked home.

Teta looked up when I came through the door. I was terrified to face her. She always seemed to know everything. This was something she should never know. She was sitting in her nightgown, cracking roasted sunflower seeds between her teeth. On the television the news showed footage of bombs dropping on a busy neighborhood.

“You found a taxi?” she asked, picking at bits of seed lodged between her teeth.

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art of resistance, Libya

The Book To Read: In The Country Of Men.

Textiles of a city Najla Shawakat Fitouri/Textiles of a city by Najla Shawket Fitouri, image © Noon Arts/

Libya, where art thou? That is a question I already asked – a lot of times. There are no certain answers, but I still manage to find Libya and its people, to catch a small glimpse of their lives.

It doesn’t happen through media and daily news, Libya is still a zero-interest story for most of those outlets. I go through libraries, art exhibitions, old and new photos – that is how a part of the country, a part of its history, a part of the daily lives of some of its people is revealed to me today.

One of those moments happened with Hisham Matar’s book In the Country of Men. It is Matar’s debut novel, first published in 2006. It has been translated into many languages and has won numerous awards.

It is a book about Suleiman, a nine-year-old boy living in Tripoli, stuck between a father whose anti-Qaddafi activities bring about searches, stalkings and telephone eaves droppings by the state police, and a vulnerable young mother who resorts to alcohol, her “medicine”, to bury her anxiety, anger and powerlessness.

Matar’s own family fled Libya for Egypt in 1979, and his father, a former UN diplomat and political dissident, was kidnapped in 1990 in Cairo, while Matar was studying in London. In the Country of Men is an autobiographical book in many ways.

men

Through the eyes of a young boy, the novel explores his relationship with his unwell mother and his uneasy relationship with his father. Matar writes beautifully:

“Although her unpredictability and her urgent stories tormented me,my vigil and what I then could only explain as her illness bound us into an intimacy that has since occupied the innermost memory I have of love. There was anger, there was pity, even the dark warm embrace of hate, but always love and always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love.”

Coping with the harsh and counfusing reality around him, Suleiman makes disturbing decisions, he isn’t afraid when a normal child would be, and it easily leads to (more) destruction around him. He feels emotionally distant at times, and it is unusual to see a child act that way – it makes you think about the heavy influences of the tense and violent environment he lives in.

At the end of this simple but powerful novel, fifteen years later, the narrator looks back with regret at a life interrupted by political forces that have left him distrustful, displaced, alienated, half empty.

Matar writes:

“I suffer an absence, an ever-present absence, like an orphan not entirely certain of what he has missed or gained through his unchosen loss. I am both repulsed and surprised, for example, by my exaggerated sentiment when parting with people I am not intimate with, promising impossible reunions. Egypt has not replaced Libya. Instead, there is this void, this emptiness I am trying to get at like someone frightened of the dark, searching for a match to strike.”

In the Country of Men is highly memorable, it feels honest – and there’s a special and rare beauty in that.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

After Zionism

The French Intifada

The Librarian of Basra

A Hand Full Of Stars

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art of resistance, Israeli - Palestinian conflict

The Book To Read: After Zionism.

onestate folsu

/Bethany village in 1942, photo via 14WeeksWorthOfSocks/

After Zionism: One State For Israel and Palestine is a collection of essays by some of the world’s leading thinkers on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It includes essays by Omar Barghouti, Diana Buttu, Ghada Karmi, Ilan Pappe, Philip Weiss, Saree Makdisi, Jeremiah Haber, Jonathan Cook, Joseph dana, Jeff Halper, Sara Roy and John Mearsheimer.

The collection was edited by Ahmed Moor and Anthony Loewenstein, and published in 2013. I was really looking forward to reading this, since I really believe that, due to the situation on the ground, one-state solution is the only solution for Israel and Palestine.

Although deep mistrust exists on both sides of the conflict, growing numbers of Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs are working together to forge a different future. Whatever the political solution may be, Palestinian and Israeli lives are intertwined, enmeshed, irrevocably.

Moor is a Palestinian American who grew up in Palestine and understands the disastrous effects of the Israeli occupation. Loewenstein is a an Australian Jew who was brought up expecting to believe in Zionism and the Israeli state but by his late teens started to question its legitimacy.

They write: “We came together on this book not because we agree on everything – we don’t – but because of a shared belief that Jews and Palestinians are destined to live and work together, whatever our differences in background, ideals and daily life. We are connected by a desire to see peace with justice for our peoples”. They dedicated After Zionism to “Palestinians and Israelis who deserve better”.

after zionism

Authors in this collection of essays write about several important aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, like Nakba in the Israeli Zionist landscape, the bantustanization of Palestinian Territories, Israel’s liberal myths and self-determination through ethical decolonisation.

There’s a lot of good interesting writing (and deep thinking) in this book, however, one thing I found missing is wider and more concrete exploration of possible forms of a one-state solution. The problem is that the title of the book is misleading in that sense – this book is much better at examining the current state of things in Israel and the Occupied Territories than it is at exploring possible scenarios for the future.

I still highly recommend it – it’s a good starting point for thinking about possible solutions and different future for the people of Israel and Palestine.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

The French Intifada

The Librarian of Basra

A Hand Full Of Stars

Palestinian Walks: Notes On A Vanishing Landscape

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art of resistance, Iraq

The Book To Read: The Librarian Of Basra.

librarian/image © The Librarian of Basra/

Here is a real-life hero story. Alia Muhammad Baqer was the chief librarian in the Al Basrah Central Library in Basra (Iraq). Baqer saved around thirty thousand books from destruction during the Iraq War, including a biography of Muhammad from around 1300.

Her story inspired two children’s books, one of them being The Librarian of Basra by Jeanette Winter (illustrated by Winter in bright acrylic and ink). It might be presented as a children’s book, but this lovely story is out there for everyone.

The book is written in a simple style and it’s very easy to understand, but the story it describes is not a simple one – it took a lot of courage to do what Alia Baqer and her friends did.

Baqer worked at the library for fourteen years.  As the war spread out, she tried to make sure books from the library would be safe, but the government officials denied her requests that the books be moved to safety. That is when she started to smuggle books out of the library.

The-Librarian-of-Basra-image

Soon after the 2003 invasion Basra was suffering from a humanitarian crisis in which residents lacked both water and electricity. The city was suffering, its people were suffering. Not long after Alia smuggled most of the books, the library was also destroyed.

Her new mission at the time was to raise funds to rebuild the library. The library was rebuilt a year later and she was reinstated as chief librarian.

One thing you could say is missing from this book is showing the sides involved and responsible for the war – that is not represented. It definitely doesn’t want to burden children (and adults) with US involvment in the war.

Some people would say that’s a good thing – beacuse it shows a war story, and all war stories are alike and show how wars never work, how they destroy societies. That is the most important thing, I guess.

On the other hand, you could say there needs to be an awareness, a burden of responsibility, for this is a war that is still going on, and it is a war that didn’t just happen. Our lives are political (and politicized) from an early age, and we do not need to run away from that fact or protect children from it.

I am also aware of that fact that more people enjoyed this book without the political stuff in it, because it makes them feel better and it doesn’t open the space for criticism, anger, doubt, protest. This book could have given more if you look at it that way.

Still, I appreciate it for introducing me to Alia Baqer, a woman who thought about more than her own safety and well-being in the worst of conditions. She thought about the future, did something heroic for the land of uncertainty that is tomorrow.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

A Hand Full Of Stars

Palestinian Walks: Notes On A Vanishing Landscape

Night Draws Near

The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine

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art of resistance, Iraq

The Book To Read: Night Draws Near.

tumblr_mxq7ppmmuh1rouua1o10_500/photo © Jehad Nga: Something in the WayIraq, 2010/

I often search for books on Iraq written by reporters who’ve spent a lot of months and years writing, understanding, witnessing – trying to come as close as possible to the truth of it all. Anthony Shadid was one of those reporters.

Shadid was a Lebanese-American writer, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times based in Baghdad and Beirut. He died three years ago, from an acute asthma attack while attempting to leave Syria.

I finally read his book Night Draws Near: Iraq’s people in the Shadow of America’s War. The book was published almost ten years ago, and it might seem I am really late for reading this. The sad truth is that Iraq today is not much different from the one Shadid describes in the book – in it, the night draws near fast and everything is ghamidha, ambigious.

Shadid writes: “Baghdad is a city of lives interrupted, its history a story of loss, waiting, and resilience. In the days before the American invasion in March 2003, the capital scarred by war after war felt torn, aggrieved, and filled with longing for the greatness it once possessed and has never forgotten.”

jead/photo © Jehad Nga/

He is great at observing how the greatness Baghdad once possessed plays a formative role in Iraqi culture of memory:

Rome can still see its past, the magnificence of its ancient empire gracing the modern cityscape. Paris and London, storied cities reinventing themselves as they age across centuries, live in their histories, which surround them. Baghdad, its ancient grandeur utterly destroyed, cannot see its past, its glory. It can only remember. Baghdad’s is a culture of memory, the city that draws strength and pride from the myths to which it continually returns. But the curse of recalling is the reminder of what has been lost.”

This book is a rare accomplishment because its focus is almost entirely on Iraqi people and the way this long war cripples their lives. Unlike many reporters, Shadid doesn’t forget that and doesn’t end up writing a book about himself (which is what many journalists do). He went independently through Iraq, detached from US forces, and on daily basis he asked the Iraqi people how they feel about the state of affairs in their country.

The dichotomy of the war (Washington vs. Baghdad, media vs. reality) becomes very obvious in this book. The war that is at the same time proclaimed a liberation and an occupation, is after all and before all – a war. Shadid notes all the little frustrations of the people – who cannot understand the efficiency of a superpower (US) that can take out their leader in couple of weeks, but is so inefficient in keeping the electricity running.

Throughout the book, we meet Iraqi people, different people with different backgrounds (social status, education, religion), and see how all their lives became similiar – reduced to war. We meet, for example, fourteen-year-old girl, Amal, who kept a diary starting around the beginning of the war. We see how she changes with time, how war changes her.

Shadid alo explains how fundamentalist used the growing hatred of America and found a way to appeal to young people – mostly desperate, without work and sense of purpose (and future) in life. At the same time when I read this book, I was also reading The Sirens of Baghdad by Yasmina Khadra, and it is just incredible how similiar these books are in their atmosphere – although Khadra’s book is a work of fiction.

Night Draws Near is a truly important book – for all of us to understand, for all of us to bare witness. That is the fair thing to do, that is the least we can do.

Through its storied history, Baghdad has had many names. Its medieval Abassid rulers knew it as Medinat al-Salam, the City of Peace. I hope it returns to that.

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Previous The Book To Read:

The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine

Anti-Arab Racism in the USA

A Tale of Love and Darkness

Afghanistan, Were God Only Comes to Weep

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