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, Kuwait

Illustrations By Owaikeo (Ahmed Al-Refaie).

owa/all art © Owaikeo/

Ahmed Al-Refaie, going by the artistic name of Owaikeo, is an illustrator from Kuwait. His illustrations are colorful, clever and playful – definitely worth your attention.

About the inspiration behind his work, Al-Refaie says“I’m sparked with everything around me, spinning old cultures with a modern twist to bridge the gap between what’s modern and what’s traditional.”

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Follow Owaikeo on Instagram, plus – click here if you’re interested in checking out his merchandise.

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art of resistance, Syria

Jehan Bseiso | Requiem For Raqqa.

raqqa_bread/Scenes from Syrian War: Raqqa, by Molly Crabapple/

Requiem For Raqqa

4th of July fireworks descend hot as acid,
call it chemical, not white phosphorus,
call it mistake, not massacre.

A doctor in East Ghouta tells me one grave holds his entire family.
(you left me)

A pharmacist sends me a voice note saying there is no more Insulin.
(you left me)

A politician in the US doesn’t know what Aleppo is.
(how could you leave me?)

In occupied Jerusalem, a young man says:
“Syria is the Nakba of our generation.”

(you broke my heart)

Hide in a cafe in Marseilles, order Turkish coffee with lots of sugar.
Go to the library in Alexandria, order lots of books about politics.
Stop reading.

Don’t watch Al Jazeera.
Don’t listen to the BBC.
Make up your own mind, says Beirut graffiti.
(but, you left me, you really left me)

It’s been six years since I slept, Syria.

This poem was first published on Mada Masr.

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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.

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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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