art of resistance, Syria

Playlist: Basel Rajoub.

Capture/photo: The Queen of Turquoise album, Basel Rajoub/

Basel Rajoub is a little wonder. He is a Syrian saxophone player – a skilled improviser, and highly original composer. Rajoub performs both as a solo artist and a leader of the Basel Rajoub Ensemble.

His Soriana Project (“Soriana is ‘our Syria’, a homeland we left behind”, Rajoub says) features collaborations with like-minded artists celebrating their heritage and paying homage to the gift and beauty of music.

You can listen to Rajoub’s Soriana from the album Asia here. Turn the lights low and enjoy.

Previous Playlist:

Crystalline (Omar Souleyman Remix)

Aynur Doğan

Hello Pshychaleppo

Grup Bunalim

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art of resistance, Libya

Khaled Mattawa | Bedtime Reading For The Unborn Child.

2013-09-10-iran-artist-2 /art by Hayv Kahraman/

Khaled Mattawa is a wonderful Libyan-American writer, poet and a translator. Mattawa’s poetry frequently explores the intersection of culture, narrative, and memory.

Here is one of his beautiful poems, Bedtime Reading for the Unborn Child, from the collection Amorisco (Copper Canyon Press, 2008).

Long after the sun falls into the sea

and twilight slips off the horizon like a velvet sheet

and the air gets soaked in blackness;

long after clouds hover above like boulders

and stars crawl up and stud the sky;

long after bodies tangle, dance, and falter

and fatigue blows in and bends them

and sleep unloads its dreams and kneads them

and sleepers dive into the rivers inside them,

a girl unlatches a window,

walks shoeless into a forest,

her dark hair a flag rippling in darkness.

.

She walks into woods, her feet light-stepping

through puddles, over hard packed dirt,

through grassy hills, over sticks and pebbles

over sand soaked in day, stones sun-sizzled

over lakes and frigid streams

through dim cobbled streets

darkened squares and dusty pastures.

She runs from nothing, runs to nothing,

beyond pain, beyond graveyards and clearings.

In the dark the eyes of startled creatures

gleam like a herd of candles.

They scatter and give night its meaning.

.

What echo of a bell lulled her

what spirit, what scent of a word

whose storm wrote her

what banks fell to drown her

which blood star

which thread of water

which trickle of light

whose heart being launched

whose floating soul seduced her

what promise did it make her

whose memory burned her

whose prayer did she run to answer

whose help, what sorrow clot

what pain dammed inside her

what wall must she rebuild now

whose treasure beckons her

who spread ivy like a veil to blind her?

Daybreak lies chained to a blue wall

from which the stars drop

and lose all meaning.

.

She runs past villages that lost their names

roads that lost their destinations

seas that lost their compasses and sailors

rivers that lost their marshlands and travelers

houses that lost their sleepers and criers

trees that lost their songs and shadows

gardens that lost their violets and benches

valleys that lost their worms and farmers

mountains that lost their prophets and marauders

temples that lost their sinners and spires

lightning that lost its silver and wires

chimeras that lost their bridges

minotaurs that lost their fountains.

Crescent moons hover above her,

ancient white feathers, birdless, wingless

lost to their own meaning.

.

Music rises out of her vision.

It stands, a wall covered with silver mosses.

A clarinet sounds a wounded mare,

violins women who lost their children.

Flutes blow their hot dry breezes.

Drums chuckle the earth’s ceaseless laughter.

Pianos are mumbling sorcerers

calling spirits and powers.

Cellos chew on the sounds of thunder.

Dulcimers skip about on crutches.

Dance floors flash their knives

daring their dancers.

Words mill about the streets like orphans.

Then a lute begins groaning

and dawn loses its meaning.

.

Night girl, night girl

your book is full now.

You have drawn all the pictures.

You have seen many weepers.

Stars held your sky in place and moons

floated on your lakes and washed them.

.

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art of resistance, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen

(Interview) Laleh Khalili | Between War & Commerce.

we-are-the-dream-makers-copy/We are the dream makers, Dubai by Arcadia Blank/

Laleh Khalili is professor of Middle East politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She is the author of Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration (Cambridge, 2007) and Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies (Stanford 2013), and the editor of Modern Arab Politics (Routledge 2008) and co-editor (with Jillian Schwedler) of Policing and Prisons in the Middle East: Formations of Coercion (Hurst/Oxford 2010).

Khalili’s most recent research projects deal with the politics and political economy of war and militaries as it intersects with infrastructure, logistics and transport with specific focus on the Middle East.

Your book Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies deals with continuities in counterinsurgencies, with the way tactics of war shifted to elaborate systems of detention and encouraged policy makers to willingly choose to wage wars. Doing the research for this book, what were the biggest discoveries for you personally?

The moment I decided to do the project was one of those great epiphanies. I was doing the final research on my first book, which was about Palestinian refugees. I was talking to a Palestinian man who was raised in Lebanon and served as a PLO fighter during the Lebanese civil war. He was captured and held in prisons inside Israel. Around the same time I was interviewing him, the Abu Ghraib pictures were published. He told me it was difficult for him to look at those pictures because he was also kept naked, and dogs were used to intimidate him while he was imprisoned. It was a surprise for me to hear that.

Why was it surprising?

We often hear about different methods of torture that don’t leave marks used in these prisons, but the fact that there were other things, like dogs and nakedness, really interested me. When I started working on the project, which was originally about the different kinds of detention practices, the more I started to read, the more it became clear to me that this is not random. There is a particular way in which states that claim to be liberal, that claim to be following the rule of law and discourse of human rights, use particular methods of subjugation that seem to repeat across different contexts.

This was as true of the British and the French in the 19th and 20th centuries, and finally to Americans and Israelis nowadays. There are actual channels through which these forms of oppression travel. Finally, what became clear to me was that the more you made the war liberal in situations where people have a democratic say about the conduct of war, the more you fight a “humane” war, the better it is for arguing in favour of war. You can say you’re going to have a nice war, but in the end there’s no such thing as a nice war.

Just last week, more than a thousand Palestinians in Israeli prisons launched a hunger strike, demanding better living and medical conditions for approximately 6,500 prisoners. Unlike similar instances in the past, this hunger strike is being reported on by the mainstream media. How did the situation change from the time you did the research for Time in the Shadows, do you think there’s more media space for these issues now?

The media space for Palestinians opens and closes cyclically and it depends on what else is going on in the world. Between the time I began the research on the book and now there has been a space opening up for discussion about the kinds of atrocities that are committed. It’s also important to say that the politics around Israel and conditions of Palestinians inside Israel and under Israeli settler colonialism, and the way the media chooses to portray that have shifted.

This shift has less to do with counterinsurgencies and wars being fought and more to do with the successes Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) struggles have had in trying to find a voice in which Palestinians don’t get sidelined, in which the conditions they live in are amplified in European and North American media. That plays a significant role in us being able to hear about the hunger strike of prisoners.

One of the issues you deal with in Time in the Shadows is what happens when states expand beyond their borders. For the last couple of years in Europe, in dealing with the so-called refugee crisis,  we are witnessing the externalization of borders, not just in relation to third countries, but also within EU member states themselves. How does this re-articulation of border management practices, the formation of new institutions and policies, affect the ideas of nation-states, jurisdiction and sovereignty?

There are particular ways in which forms of control that were used externally are being used on refugees who are within the borders or are trying to cross the borders. The jurisdictional power now attaches to bodies. We get to move around Europe easily because of our citizenship, because of the rights attached to our passport. The absence of rights attached to that passport makes us profoundly vulnerable to different forms of coercion. The border is no longer a line on the map, it’s not a geophysical feature of the territory, but rather something that happens crosses the body of the person. The border ends up being me, ends up being you. That is one of the ways this externalization is being brought home.

What are the other ways?

There’s more of them, and they don’t have to do only with migrants. Domestic policing is being militarized and the kinds of tactics that were used in counterinsurgencies are being brought home in North America and Europe. They are used in counterterrorism operations against both citizens and those perceived  to be outsiders, whether or not they are citizens. Entire communities are subjects of these new kinds of policing, based on their religion, skin color, etc.

Bringing home of the external violence is fascinating – we see armoured vehicles being used in domestic demonstrations. But that is inevitable – when you’re waging big wars, it’s only a matter of time when those war methods and equipment will be used at home. And people of course, a lot of ex-soldiers become police officers and prison wardens.

In connection to what you mentioned before in regard to citizenship, Arjun Appadurai makes an interesting point how most of the citizenships laws we have today are based in the past, in blood, parenthood, etc. For a change to happen, he argues, we would need to think about citizenship based on the imagined future, on aspirations. Do you think there are possibilities for this sort of a citizenship narrative to become a part of the mainstream discussion?

The idealist in me would like to see more space for that, but looking at the way belonging is often used as means of exclusion, limiting access, limiting the ability to dream, it’s hard for me to imagine that sort of citizenship in practice. It’s interesting to think about aspirational forms of citizenship, and the dream of belonging, but I am not entirely sure without actual concrete instruments how to transform it into reality. It’s still important to remember that all forms of belonging draw borders, even the aspirational, future oriented belonging. All dream worlds come with attached catastrophes. It is important to think about what we aspire to, because the aspiration itself is not enough. The content of it is what matters.

In your recent projects you deal with the political economy of war and militaries and the way it intersects with infrastructure, logistics and transport. Your specific focus is on the Middle East. How did you come to this point in your career, where is the continuity with your previous work?

There are two things that brought me here. I was interviewing a US military officer about matters of counterinsurgency, and he said: “Oh, you academics and journalists, you all love everything that bleeds”. To really understand the war, he said, you need to look at military logistics, that’s where all the money is spent. That was the first signal that got me looking in that direction. The vast majority of US military budget around the war is spent on getting the fuel to the fighters, getting food, setting up where they live, getting the uniforms and ammunition. Food and fuel tend to be the biggest logistical expenses. There is an entire machinery behind that.

The second thing was that friends who work for the International Transport Workers’ Federation were interested in finding out more about the Arabian peninsula, and they encouraged me in this direction. It was a combination of wanting to find out more about the role of military logistics, and about the working conditions of people in these maritime settings in the Arabian peninsula. The Arabian peninsula was perfect for this because Kuwait and Qatar were staging grounds for the American war in Iraq, and the UAE continues to be a logistical staging ground for the US war in Afghanistan.

You’re primarily interested in the role of US and British military and oil companies in the Arabian peninsula. In which ways do the policies of these countries affect the infrastructure of the Arabian peninsula, and specifically the working conditions of people employed in the ports and maritime transport business?

It depends on the country. In Saudi Arabia, the role of the US is much more important than the role of the British, while in the smaller Emirates, as well as Oman and Yemen, the role of the British is much more important due to colonial history. Emirs in these countries continue to be advised by the British and to a certain degree the indirect colonial control continues today. The US and GB didn’t only have a substantial role in the structure of these states.

Oil companies and tanker terminals have a different history, but it is very crucial to the formation of these states and their transport infrastructures. The conditions of work that emerged in tanker terminals, the geographic placement of these terminals far from cities, the way they were automated from very early on, in the 1940s and 1950s, have been essential in shaping practices within container industries many years later.

The second thing that has been really interesting is that the oil companies, in order to be able to start extracting oil in the Arabian peninsula, have to bring in all the materials, pipes, heavy equipment.  They couldn’t do that because many of these ports simply didn’t allow for ships to come close enough, particularly in the Gulf area, where the coast is very shallow and tends to be mudflat, with no deep harbours. They had to build new ports and that shows the connection of the cargo history with oil companies.

In your lectures you often talk about the significance of Yemen and the city of Aden as a port, and the changes it went through in the recent history. Why is Aden so significant?

Aden was a British colony from 1834 to 1967. It was originally colonized because the British needed a coaling station in that location, but also the British wanted to colonize that area because of the location close to the Red Sea, and the East African coast and of course to India. With the opening of the Suez Canal in the mid-19th century, Aden became far more significant than it has been before. That’s when it becomes the fourth largest coaling station for ships in the world. There’s a long history of Yemen being on these trade routes, because it was a hub for coffee. Mocha coffee we know today is named after a port there.

After 1950s when the British lost their big refinery in Iran, because it was nationalized, a major refinery was built in Aden. The rise of Aden as a port continues until British are forced to leave by the anti-colonial struggle which begins in the late 1950s. The British didn’t want to give up Aden, it was a major city, cosmopolitan,  of strategic importance, and crucial to the conduct of empire, but later in the 20th century Americans are stepping into the game.

What has happened in the last decades is fascinating because now regional capital is injecting money into Aden, money from Dubai and so on. The deals that these companies are making  are corrupt.  Aden ended up taking Dubai Ports World, one of the biggest terminal management companies, to court and managed to cancel the 35-year container terminal concession with them. Now, when Aden is being destroyed in a war waged by Saudi Arabia and UAE, one of the first things UAE announced once they got the control of Aden, is that they will help rebuild the port. There’s such comfortable traffic between war and commerce.

In connection with Yemen, it is the only country in the Arabian peninsula that has (had) functional unions. Are there any possibilities for workers to organize in other countries?

In the Arabian peninsula, only three countries have unions – Yemen, Kuwait and Bahrain. The difference between them is that in both Kuwait and Bahrain unions are not as functional as in Yemen. In Bahrain there are independent unions, but they only cater to citizens, not to the migrant population, and they are only unions of state employees.. The same rules applies to Kuwait, except that it’s even more limited and the unions are practically the arms of the state.

Part of the reason for the existence of unions there and not elsewhere is that Kuwait and Bahrain had far more developed set of industrial relations with the British, and they allowed the creation of unions as ways of trying to channel nationalist and radical sentiments among workers. Unions were never allowed to emerge in other countries.

What makes Yemen a different case?

Yemen is a very different case, because unions there became quite significant for the independence struggle. Reading through the history of Yemen, one finds constant stories of worker mobilization in the ports. They still have a functioning set of unions, although at the moment, with no ports functioning,  workers are are receiving a small amount of aid but they are not working.

The presence of unions there is extremely important because it has meant that there has been far more accountability in terms of the managements of the ports and far more visible sets of protests against unjust policies.  These kinds of protests exist in places like the UAE  but because there are no unions there are no ways to organize them better and make them more substantial and longer-lasting.

Going through the history of protests organized by the port workers, how was the cooperation between different nationalities, because it is factor that can be used to divide the workers?

The response differs depending on the location and time. During times of very heightened nationalist sentiments, the unions tend to act as instruments of ethnic and xenophobic exclusion, and that is much more the case in the Northern part of the Arabian peninsula, than in the South. Yemen is a special case because so many of the workers in the ports were of Somali origin and the unions didn’t have the distinction between Yemenis and others.

The British actively tried to undermine cross-national unity. One of the things they realized is that if the workers in the ports were Arabs, from many different countries, they could be quite demanding in asking for their rights, and they couldn’t be easily pushed aside because their governments could protect them. This wasn’t as true for a lot of the South Asian workers whose governments wouldn’t protect them and they couldn’t easily mobilize together with the Arabs because of the issues of language. It shows how British were good at divide and rule.

Are these colonial labour tactics and structures still present today?

The structures of ports today, particularly the big, mechanized, automated container ports in the Arabian peninsula, still reflect colonial labour structures. CEOs of the ports and the top managers are usually from North and West Europe, mostly British, the next level of managers are European. After that come the administrators, which are usually educated Indians, and then you have a large labour force that comes from the migrant communities working in these cities.

The conditions in which they work are far more precarious then those of the expat communities, European and other. There are differentiated labour regimes operating in these settings, quite familiar from the past. It’s useful to have different nationalities working in clusters, because that way you can separate them and they can’t collaborate with one another and form unions or protest. It also helps to have deportable labour because the moment there are difficulties you can send them out of the country.

In a lot of your lectures and writings, you use literary examples. You often mention two books – Melville’s Moby Dick and Kanafani’s Men in the sun. Why are these books so important for the research you do?

Moby Dick is wonderful because it’s just a wonderful book. There is a really long tradition of reading Moby Dick as an allegory for labour struggle and many other things. It’s also important for all of the information and research that went into it, and the descriptive geography it offers to the reader.

Kanafani’s book came as a surprise to me, because I’ve read it a lot of times and I’ve always seen it as an allegory for the Palestinian condition. But when I read it again recently, it struck me how well researched it is. You can learn all sorts of details about migration routes of Palestinians who went to Kuwait to find jobs, but also about Trans-Arabian Pipeline and its pumping stations and how they were connected to roads and many other logistical features.

There’s also a third book, Abdul Rahman Munif’s Cities of Salt. It’s a wonderful, difficult and dense novel about the coming of Aramco to Saudi Arabia. It is deeply researched and I love it because there are so few memoirs of people who worked in the ports and oil industries in Saudi Arabia in the moment when Aramco came, and Munif is a wonderful documentor of this moment in time and all the changes that happen.

People underuse these amazing literary works as documentary sources. There’s also an amazing genre of fisherman’s songs from Kuwait and Bahrain, and I want to analyze them and see what else can we learn about the transformation from fishermen to industrial communities.

• • •

This interview was also published on H-Alter.

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art of resistance, Syria

Safwan Dahoul | What Dreams Are Made Of.

Safwan_Dahoul_Dream_11_2016/art © Safwan Dahoul, Dream 11/

Safwan Dahoul is a Syrian painter, born in Hama in 1961. He is one of the many Syrian artists who left their country and relocated to Dubai.

His body of art is informed and inspired by his personal emotions and life, and particularly by the experience of displacement and diaspora and the war in Syria.

His evocative paintings all share the title Dream, as a reference to the dreamlike mental state that characterises Dahoul’s present situation.

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Safwan-Dahoul-Dream-110-180-x-200-cm.-Acrylic-on-canvas-2015-1024x921

Safwan-Dahoul-Dream-112-180-x-200-cm.-Acrylic-on-canvas-2015-1024x934

To find out more about Dahoul and his work, visit the Ayyam GalleryDahoul’s work can be found at Ayyam Gallery, Beirut, Damascus, Dubai, London and Jeddah.

//all art © Safwan Dahoul//

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art of resistance, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria

Without Peace, We Can’t Have Women’s Rights.

obey_middle_east_mural_20141202505809/photo: Shepard Fairey, Obey Middle East Mural/

More than a century has passed since the famous strikes of female workers in the American textile industry. For more than a century, all around the world, International Women’s Day is celebrated on the 8th of March. A century later, inequality isn’t gone. To discuss the issues of inequality and representation in the Middle East, a region often in the spotlight for violation of women’s rights, we talk with female lawyers, poets, aid workers, directors and activists from the region – Jehan Bseiso, Hind Shoufani, Roula Baghdadi, Fatima Idriss and Nagwan El-Ashwal.

In the honor of International Women’s Day, in the name of continuity of the struggle, we’re in discussion with women from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt. We tackle the issues for women in general, and in the Middle East particularly. Western media usually doesn’t do justice to this topic and the mainstream discourse on Middle Eastern women is highly problematic. It’s not only about the stories written, it’s equally about the imagery that follows them – in some cases the photographs chosen to accompany the news about Middle Eastern women are less than representational of the story at hand. Let’s change that. The struggle continues, but solidarity continues too!

Jehan Bseiso: Between victims and superheros – too much of a burden

Bseiso is a Palestinian poet, researcher and aid worker. Her poetry has been published in Warscapes, The Funambulist, The 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. She is also working on a collection of poems: Conversations Continued, a compilation of real, misheard, and misremembered conversations. Bseiso has been working with Médecins sans Frontières /Doctors Without Borders since 2008.

In Jordan and Lebanon, women continue to carve out a space across all spheres at home and at work. There is a lot of incredible progress, but also so much work left to do in confronting unjust laws , like the one that lets a rapist marry his victim, permits a brother to shoot his sister in the name of “honor” and forces women to “declare pregnancy” when applying for a job.

I find that women from the MENA region are portrayed either as victims or superheroes, and that is too much of a burden, it needs to stop.  The ordinary is extraordinary and we forget that. Western media is particularly obsessed with the trope of “the oppressed Arab and Muslim woman” to an extent that first it misrepresents that story, and it overshadows any other narrative.

Concerning change – each step, however small, if it’s in the right direction it counts. The struggle for change and improvement of the situation for women in the MENA is historical and ongoing, it predates the “Arab spring” and it must necessarily continue to be allied to any call for systemic change.

Hind Shoufani: Legal system written against women

Hind Shoufani is a filmmaker and a writer, working and living in many cities in the Middle East. She’s Palestinian by blood, born in Lebanon and at heart a Beirut girl, raised in Damascus, but also lived in Jordan and held a Jordanian citizenship her whole life. Shoufani currently lives in Dubai and considers herself from all of these places. She is the founder of the Poeticians collective, where poets from all backgrounds read multilingual spoken word and poetry in Beirut and Dubai. She performed her poetry in various cities in Europe, the US and the Arab world and currently works as a freelance director/producer/writer in the UAE and the Arab region at large. Shoufani is currently making a video art feature length documentary on the sensuality, politics and religion present in the poetry and life of six female Arab poets. 

Aside from the violence against women, issues such as honor killings, assault and abuse that goes unreported and unpunished, women in the Arab world suffer the most from the legal system that is written against them. Whether based on Sharia law or civil rights law, women are never treated equally in the eyes of the law. We do not inherit assets, money or land the same way men do, we cannot pass on our citizenship to our children if their father is from a different nationality, and Christian women can be robbed of their children/assets/money if they marry a Muslim man who either divorces them, or passes away. Lebanon just removed the law that says if a rapist marries the woman he assaulted he will not be prosecuted under the legal system.

There are attempts in various countries to improve the standing of women in society as a legal citizen with rights, but it has not yet fulfilled any equality with men. This is mostly due to religion being the key reference for most arbitration in court, whether its issues of childbirth, divorce, inheritance or marriage in general. The personal status laws in the Arab world when it comes to women are abysmal and need a complete overhaul. Issues like violence against women are international issues and not specific to the Arab world, but our legal system really needs to be completely rewritten. A separation of “Church” and state is very much needed here. Sadly, there are very strong forces in the region who want to see us go back to a thousand years ago, and a massive clash of ideology is currently playing out, to very bloody and sad results.

That being said, a lot of mainstream discourse is offensive to Arab women. No one outside the region quite understands how amazingly strong Arab women are. We defy the odds and persevere every single day, we rise from swamps of hatred, prejudice, narrow minded beliefs, obstacles, violence, a legal system that treats us as inferior citizens, and we make life happen. We are doctors and poets and mothers and cleaners and dancers and teachers and warriors. This holds especially true for the Palestinian women who have resisted such a cruel occupation for over seventy years, and more recently Syrian women who are doing best to hold the sky together for themselves and their families dispersed in camps, prisons, street corners, homeless and refugeed and hated and besieged and starving.

The mainstream media is also missing a massive point. While there are hundreds of thousands of women who are struggling for a better life in the region, there are very large numbers of women who were born free, into educated and progressive and open minded families, who are leading brave and exhilarating lives. Not all of us are fighting oppression. Not all of us are in a camp, attempting to escape terrorists such as ISIS and so on. Not all of us have a brother or father who beats us. I personally know hundreds of women who have university degrees, live on their own, make their own money and are economically independent of their parents, choose their lovers, are lesbians, are artists, are outspoken activists and lawyers and nurses and teachers and poets. Many are atheists, some are spiritual, some Muslim or Christian. Free. The mainstream view of Arab women rarely showcases these stories because they are not considered sexy.

Roula Baghdadi: Without peace, we can’t have human and women’s rights

Roula Baghdadi is a Syrian lawyer. She is a part of supervisor’s legal team In Equal Citizenship Center inside Syria, and works with a legal team which defends abused women. Baghdadi is also currently doing her Master in Public law.

On the International Women’s Day, I am hoping for peace, in all of the world, for all of the people. Without peace we can’t achieve respect and fulfillment of all human and women’s rights.

Women in the region are in the worst situation, by the effects of religion and the Islamic extremism, but also totalitarian regimes. Our women today have to fight the long and strong history of thoughts and ideologies, wars, poverty… They have to deal with all of these problems to reach their rights. I believe women’s rights can’t exist without democracy, social justice, and full respect of human rights in general – in constitutions and laws and society. As a lawyer, I believe laws help societies evolve, but that still needs real development in the region.

In Middle East, women do their best. These issues will still need decades to be resolved, but we are on our path, we reject the old systems of the world – in which there’s discrimination between women and men, between black and white, between poor and rich. We reject the regime of profiling, we reject tyranny. And that is not easy.

Syrian women are sold in the markets and are whipped and are still being arrested and abducted. They are being targeted and used as a weapon of war, raped and sold, forced into marriage – particularly minors. All of the parties in Syrian war agreed to one thing, which is targeting of women. That’s why I’d like to say, once again, on the International Women’s Day – let’s work for peace, peace and peace. For all of humanity.

Fatima Idriss: It starts with people addressing immediate issues of daily life

Fatima Idriss is a general manager of Tadamon Council (Egyptian Multicultural Council for Refugees) since 2009, and one of its founders. In 2013, Idriss published a research booklet on education for refugees, which was mainly written by children and young people. She has participated in many international conferences in Europe and in the Arab world. Idriss has been working in the human rights field since 2001, with different international organizations based in Egypt, including: Save the Children – Regional office Middle East and North Africa as Child Participation officer (2004); or CARE Egypt on an awareness-raising project on SIDA (2006).

It has been proved that women still struggle globally – to be considered an equal human and citizen, and those struggles are not ending, due to multi-dimensional factors preventing women to achieve a decent amount of their basic rights.

In Middle East and Egypt particularly, being a woman is a trouble for the community on a daily basis. Women in Middle East have been heavily torn under the concept of “women rights defenders” by those who declare themselves as protectors of the rights of women, but are full of hostility and hatred for women – they are not happy as long as women don’t complete the form that they want and not what women really want. Every violence against women and sexual harassment is still seen as women’s liability, they are the ones blamed by the whole community.

Freedom is not always about grand political debates. It often starts with people addressing the immediate issues of daily life. When it comes to women controlling their lives, the current mainstream discourse on women is different  – the example of Tunisia is completely different from Egypt, and then there’s Gulf area, which is totally different from the rest. When questioning the current mainstream discourse on women as an act of justice to the reality, the answer is “NO”.

We are witnessing massive deterioration of women’s rights. We’ve gone from taking on the roles as active citizens after the Arab spring to passivity – due to limits of change in the social, economic, and political atmosphere in general. At one level, community members kept back to undercurrent burden of economic situation (Egypt as example), it keeps them so busy with the daily needs. The economic situation got the priority and that created limited space for all citizens to engage in public life – so women have less opportunity to be active.

Nagwan El-Ashwal: The issue of democracy

Nagwan El-Ashwal is from Egypt. She is PhD researcher at the European University Institute – EUI- Florence, Italy and she works on Jihadi movements in the Arab region. Also, she was a visiting PhD scholar at the Institute of International Studies at University of California at Berkeley and the chairperson of Regional Center for Mediation and Dialogue. El-Ashwal was involved with a lot of different organizations related to justice, equality and democracy in Europe and in the Middle East.

The main issue for women in the Middle East today is the issue of democracy and freedom from repressive regimes. Those regimes close the public sphere when confronted with any kind of activism.

I think that women activists in the first years of the Arab spring have enjoyed a lot with the free space where they could take part in all political activities and push society forward to get more rights – in terms of political and economical struggle. However, after what occurred – either in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen or Libya, women involved in activism are getting back to the first step. The situation is better in Tunisia but it is still dramatically bad in other cases.

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

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art of resistance, Lebanon

(Interview) Yazan Halwani: Uniting The City.

action_shot_yazan_halwani/Photos: Yazan Halwani (private album)/

Although he’s only in his twenties, Yazan Halwani is a name you will hear a lot in Beirut. For the last couple of years his work is among the most notable ones when it comes to Arab street art. Halwani has adorned walls of Beirut (and cities all over the world) with portraits of the writer Khalil Gibran and legendary singers Fairuz and Sabah, as well as everyday local heroes like Ali Abdullah, a homeless man who died one winter’s night in 2013 and Fares, a 12-year-old flower seller from Hamra street.

I meet Halwani in a quiet cafe in Gemmayzeh, a vibrant area of cafes and small shops in downtown Beirut. He’s relaxed and easygoing, with a big smile on his face, and remains of paint on his fingers. We move from topic to topic, he speeks with ease and eloquence. We talk about the different layers of (street) art, use of graffiti to tell a story, sectarianism and Lebanese identity, and importance of doing things your way.

In your work, you put emphasis on the unified aspects of Lebanese identity. In a society that knows separation, society that is deeply fragmented, you try to focus on the commonalities. In Beirut, different neighbourhoods have different tags on the walls, different posters and flags – the visualization of division is quite present in this city. How do you work around that?

What I am doing is not necessarily trying to tell people that they shouldn’t be religious, that they shouldn’t have a certain identity, not at all. What I am trying to do is creating a unified cultural identity. If you try to answer the question – what does it mean to be Lebanese – you cannot answer it, and that is mainly because of how Lebanon was created. It was a mix of cultures and different religions that were put together in a very random and incosiderable way.

In the beginning it maybe made sense because the identity was formed in relation to the occupier, but that changed over the decades. Although there are some commonalities, the emphasis in Lebanon was always on the religious and sectarian identity.

Why is that so?

The reason for that is that the political parties benefit much more from such divide than from enforcing a citizen or political identity. If you have a political identity you tend to shift, and the political party you support needs to be consistent, it needs to deserve your loyalty. It’s much easier to talk about religion, to continue the sectarian speech, than to address real issues, like corruption.

This sectarian identity is emphasized in the urban landscape. In Geitawi and Achrafieh, you see the crosses, the tags of Lebanese Forces, and in Hamra, a street supposedly run by Syrian Social Nationalist Party, you see couple of guys sitting on plastic chairs, guarding “their” territory. And Hamra is a diverse area where you have a population of tens of thousands of people, and this party is relatively small and insignificant in comparison to that, but they still try to show that they own the area.

They create that impression, and that is what happens in a lot of areas in Beirut. It used to annoy me a lot – that there are certain areas of Beirut marked by sectarianism, instead of more representative images of reality. That is why I focused on painting the figures of people that connect us, instead of all these signs of separation. I painted Fairuz, Sabah, Ali Abudllah. I wanted to show that these streets belong to all of us.

sabah/Sabah/

Talking about identity, you often said how in the beginning your work was very much copy paste of Western style graffiti, which is what you recognized as the right way of doing street art. How did you end up finding your way, your style of doing it?

There are two layers to my work. One is a political, social, a position on certain issues. On the other hand, there is a more artistic one, the cultural layer – which is more about the actual art in Lebanon and in the Arab world. Initially, I thought graffiti was about colors and tagging, things like that. Slowly, I started reading, thinking and understanding more.

When I started developing my own style I didn’t want to copy paste the art of the West, but I also didn’t want to reproduce the old Arab cultural identity, like the calligraphy of the 12th century. I tried to find a balance, something that is true to the reality we live today. We live in a modern world, and although we have a past that should be preserved, it should not come with the cost of denying what we are and how we are today. So I took some aspects of Arabic calligraphy but I also broke away from some other apects of it and adjusted it to the modern times.

How did you do that – what is different in your work in comparison to classical Arabic calligraphy?

Arabic calligraphy is focused on the text, but I don’t use it that way. I use it to paint, to create images. I also use a lot of figurations, which is not that common in the traditional art of this area. You can’t and shouldn’t stay puritan that way, you need to find a way to incorporate and communicate the art in the times we are living in.

I want to create a more universal approach to art in general, so I use calligraphy to paint faces. That way everyone can understand it. I don’t want my art to speak only to people who can read Arabic, but I do want it to show and incorporate a part of Arab culture.

fairuz/Fairuz/

Do you think there’s more (re)thinking like that happenig in the Arab art world?

Yes. More and more Arab artists are comfortable with questioning their identity, expressing the modern Arab world. Identity is not static and uniformed, especially in our country that is so unstable and people have so many different experiences. The truth is that we face many problems in preserving our culture.

Arab public shools are not strong enough, so most of the people who can afford it tend to go to private schools, and private schools are all in French or in English. I went to a French school and I was annoyed by having to speak in French, so I read a lot in Arabic and tried to rebel against it. There is another big problem in Lebanon – we don’t have a good infrastructure to preserve culture. We don’t have good consistent publishing, archiving of books and newspapers, theatres, museums, etc. It creates a kind of volatile culture.

Can you compare the situation to Gulf countries, since you’re currently living between Dubai and Beirut?

Gulf countries are now very conscious about the need to archive their identity, and there’s a lot of efforts there in preserving Arab culture. The contribution of some Arab art collectors in Gulf is much bigger than the Lebanese, but that is also connected to different issues these countries face or don’t face.

A lot of your work is socially responsible, and connected to different social issues. Sometimes, in the art world, that can be considered a lower form of  art. What are your thoughts on that?

If we want to accept this argument, and the reasons for it, we first need to discuss the fact that the art that was at the forefront of the art world in recent times is conceptual art. Concept or the idea is the most important. The reason why they say socially or politically driven work is less of an artwork is that it sometimes doesn’t offer a new concept. The emphasis is usually on the topic, on the content.

In the work I do, there’s always two layers. One is the theme, and the other layer is an artistic one – which is using Arabic calligraphy to change the traditional form of expression. I use the language of calligraphy for reasons other than text. My work is very much socially and politically driven, but it also offers a new concept.

Also, it’s important to say that in today’s world conceptual art is failing more and more. First, because of its inability to create art that is always relevant, to offer new concepts that are evolutionary, and second because the art world itself is becoming more vague so conceptual art is not that important anymore. There’s no longer one defintion of what is the most important form of art.

yazan1/Ali Abdullah/

Unlike many street artists, you try to do things legally. Why is that important to you?

In all art disciplines, there are certain things that are still done but there’s no longer justification for doing them. In your camera on the phone, there’s a clicking sound, but there’s no need for it anymore. A lot of disciplines have a thing like that, and street art is one of them.

Initially, doing things ilegally made sense, there was a lot of value in that. But take Lebanon today – people in power do things ilegally all the time, so many people are doing vandalism, and it doesn’t make sense to me to be doing things that way. Civil war was an extreme form of vandalism, political parties terrorising this city are a much stronger form of vandalism than any street art could ever be.

So there’s no value in doing street art ilegally in Lebanon.

Exactly. There’s no value in bringing the street art where I live and being a vandal. It’s much more dangerous to try to create a unified sense of identity and do it legally. When I started doing graffiti, I did things ilegally and the police didn’t care. But when I started painting big buildings, talking to people about history and culture, getting the permits, officials started asking much more questions, they wanted to make my work much harder.

It’s beacuse doing things that way had much more impact on the city and the people. In my approach to street art, I like to reconsider every aspect of it, I don’t want to do something just because it was done a certain way before. I realized there’s no value in doing street art ilegally in Lebanon and that is why I don’t do it ilegally.

A lot of your work is in Lebanon, but you also painted murals in different countries all over the world. One of them is a mural in Germany, of a young boy Fares, who was a flower seller on Hamra street in Beirut. How do you decide which stories cross borders?

Whenever I go to the some other country, it’s an opportunity, a platform to express something. In the instance of Fares, I was invited to Germany at a time when the talk about refugees was that they are an unwanted addition to the country, how they offer no contribution to the society. This was obviously not true. One of the examples was Fares, Syrian refugee whose cultural contribution to the Hamra street, where he used to live, was much greater than the most of the other people living there.

Me painting Fares was a reference to the fact that refugees are not fleeing an imaginary conflict – Fares died in a bombing when he went to visit his family in Syria. It was also a reference to the contribution of refugees to our societies – when Fares died, his passing away generated so many stories, his personal and cultural contibution to Hamra and Beirut was enormous. To all of those who are saying refugees are a burden, in Germany or in Lebanon, I wanted to show Fares.

fares_mural/Fares/

In conclusion – what guides you in your work, how do you choose the next project?

I always have a lot of ideas, and when one is actually mature enough, I take it out and try to make it happen. I am a big fan of artists who created decisive moments in the art history, because they have been able to question the art in the time they were living in and break away from the tradition. But with good reasons, not just for the sake of doing it. I was not educated in art, I came to the art world as an outsider and that helps me in the approach to some of the art doctrines – it makes me question traditionalism.

When I painted Fairuz, people started noticing my work. That wall became a kind of landmark, although it’s a small piece. People recognized themselves in the work, and that was the first time it happened to me. It happened because I started doing work that makes sense to me, and I think it made sense to others too. I am painting with brush and ink, I have tons of spray cans that are unused for years. I don’t let anyone tell me there’s one way of doing street art. Every painting, every mural is a learning experience.

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

 

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Iraq

Iraq Body Count: Another Year Of Relentless Violence In Iraq.

dia-azz/art by Dia Azzawi/

Iraq Body Count issued their annual report of civilian deaths in Iraq. 2016 has been another year of relentless violence in Iraq.

This has been most significant this year in the northern city of Mosul and surrounding areas in Ninewa province under the control of Islamic State (IS), where it has carried out thousands of killings and executions. At the same time, the region has been under almost constant bombardment by US-Coalition and Iraqi government forces seeking to oust IS.

The annual total for civilian deaths in Iraq in 2016 was 16,361, which is within a broad range encompassing 2015 (17,578) and 2014 (20,218). These past three years are very much higher than the years 2010-2012, the least violent period since the invasion, when the annual numbers ranged from 4,167 to 4,622, and are also substantially higher than 2013 (9,852) which saw the beginning of the change from the pre-2013 levels to current levels.

Any serious public documentation of civilians killed will aim to record them as named individuals, as part of a record that establishes who was killed, not just how many. A recently-published companion piece to this report lists by name a sample of the individual victims in 2016 for whom further personal information has been made public, including in some cases photographs. This reflects IBC’s long-term goal to more fully humanise the victims of the war, through the forthcoming Iraq Digital Memorial project. IBC’s identified victims list now spans more than 500 pages listing 25 individuals each.

In 2016 (as in 2014 and 15), there were roughly the same number of civilians recorded injured as killed.

ibc/photo: IBC/

Death by execution continues to account for by far the largest number of civilians killed in 2016 (7,170 killed, including victims of all ages) as it did in both 2014 and 2015.

Death by execution continues to account for by far the largest number of civilians killed in 2016 (7,170 killed, including victims of all ages) as it did in both 2014 and 2015.

2016 also witnessed some particularly shocking events, even by post-invasion standards. An example of that is the most deadly ground-based bombing attack in Baghdad, which was claimed by IS and hit a very crowded market in the central area of Karrada, on the 3rd of July just one day before Muslims’ Eid al-Fitr, killing 324, including women, children and members of entire families, according to the latest reports.

See the full IBC report here.

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