art of resistance

Call For Papers: Towards An Arab Left Reader.

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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

In Defence Of M.I.A.

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There has always been a lot of controversy about M.I.A. and her music, and most of the time for the wrong reasons. I wouldn’t usually take time to write about it, but I feel it’s important to write something because it just doesn’t stop – by it I mean the shitstorm M.I.A. is facing.

Like it was nicely explained on Backwithpowerpower, it really doesn’t stop – from the dislikes she gets for posting photos of refugees and conditions they live in on Instagram, to debates about her headlining Afropunk. Sure, some of the criticism she has faced over the years is justified and it opened up space for conversations  that were much needed (I think Afropunk is in that category), but it’s also important to note that there was a lot of criticism over the years that wasn’t aimed to be constructive, but rather destructive (in relation to M.I.A.).

It wasn’t really about engaging with her, it wasn’t about having a discussion, it was about silencing her, discrediting her – in one fast move, usually. Of course, M.I.A. is a not a one-trick pony and cannot be discarded just like that. Her message resonates with many people, although they might not be the ones having the power in their hands and setting the course of mainstream conversations.

The first thing that comes to mind and is necessary to go back to again, is the famous article published in The New York Times six years ago, written by Lynn Hirschberg, titled M.I.A.’s Agitprop PopIt was the article that made M.I.A. say “fuck the New York Times” and that sentiment was not without a reason.

After it was published, M.I.A. posted two audio recordings from her interview, that she secretly taped. Hirschberg suerly didn’t expect that. In the published piece, M.I.A. is described as “eating a truffle-flavored French fry” as she mused about what type of artist she is. To be precise, here is the quote:

“‘I kind of want to be an outsider’, she said, eating a truffle-flavored French fry. ‘I don’t want to make the same music, sing about the same stuff, talk about the same things. If that makes me a terrorist, then I’m a terrorist.'”

Now, if you are an observant reader, truffle-flavoured French fry is not just a small detail, it might tell you a lot about M.I.A.’s personality, it might tell you how she is, well, one of the fancy rich folks, pretending while talking about being an outsider and all.

The thing is, according to the tape M.I.A. posted after the interview was published, it was Hirschberg who introduced the concept of fry-ordering, and proposed the idea of a fancy treat. M.I.A. also tweeted Hirschberg’s phone number in response to the piece. Hirschberg said that was an unethical thing to do, but didn’t think it was surprising. “She’s a provocateur, and provocateurs want to be provocative”, she said about M.I.A.

But M.I.A. was just angry, because she felt that she was cheated on, that her story was distorted. Hirschberg’s own opinions and desire for a strong angle got in the way of her piece’s veracity. All the way through the nine page piece, it feels like she wants to discredit M.I.A., in a subtle way, writing things like:

“But many of her fans didn’t listen too closely to her lyrics, concentrating instead on the beat, the newness of the sound and her own multiculti, many-layered appeal. She was an instant indie darling (although Arular sold only 190,000 copies in the United States). Her songs were creative and abrasive in an intoxicating way, and it didn’t hurt that Maya was absolutely great looking. She quickly became a style icon: like that of all great pop stars, her anger and spirit of revolution was mitigated by sex.”

Now, that is what I am talking about. Hirschberg, whose main issues with M.I.A. are precisely her political lyrics, tries to downplay the importance of that part of M.I.A.’s work – saying how her fans don’t even listen closely to the lyrics. She also says how it’s basically all about her great looks. Sure, M.I.A. is beautiful, she has a unique style and there’s a cool vibe about it, but, her anger wasn’t and isn’t mitigated by sex (that is exactly why many people have issues with her).  In a song 20 dollar, from her second album Kala, M.I.A. raps:

People judge me so hard

’cause I don’t floss my titty set

I was born out of dirt like I’m porn in a skirt

I was a little girl who made good with all that I blurt

I put people on the map that never seen a map

I show ’em something they ain’t never seen

And hope they make it back

Saying M.I.A.’s politics don’t matter means being dismissive about the absolute core of her work, from day one. It’s also totally dishonest, as it is obvious in the part of the article where Hirschberg writes about the Born Free video:

“Seemingly designed to be banned on YouTube, which it was instantly, the video is set in Los Angeles where a vague but apparently American militia forcibly search out red-headed men and one particularly beautiful red-headed child. The gingers, as Maya called them, using British slang, are taken to the desert, where they are beaten and killed. The first to die is the child, who is shot in the head. While ‘Born Free’ is heard in the background throughout, the song is lost in the carnage. As a meditation on prejudice and senseless persecution, the video is, at best, politically naïve.”

So, first we will say that M.I.A.’s political message is not important at all, and then we will discard her on the basis of that political message. Hirschberg was not the only one to do that. In an article on Flavorwire, titled Is It Time To Give Up On M.I.A.? Judy Berman writes:

“The (ultraviolent, NSFW) music video (if you can call it that) for ‘Born Free’ brought M.I.A.’s political posturing to a new low. In case you’ve somehow managed to miss the flap over the seemingly endless clip, it features military types rounding up and shooting redheads, including some particularly adorable children. While some were impressed with M.I.A. and director Romain-Gavras’ messaging, all we got out of the extreme visuals was this: ‘Genocide happens! And it’s bad! What if it happened to you?’ Next time, try telling us something we didn’t know… or at least leaving shocked viewers with some opportunity to get involved in efforts to stop mass murder around the world.”

So, many of the critics got on the bandwagon, saying M.I.A. is just superficial and provocative, and her work is pure political posturing – she’s not really informed, she doesn’t really care, she just wants attention. Now, this definition “she’s not really informed, she doesn’t really care, she just wants attention” can be applied to a great majority of pop stars today (although they will never be nailed to a cross, or even questioned for it), but it cannot be applied to M.I.A.

You don’t see a lot of pop stars doing what she’s doing to “get attention”, do you? You don’t see a lot of mainstream musicians making bold statements and taking a stand on various issues, through their music and their public appearance, do you? Sure, little moments happen from time to time, but they seem very calculated and thought out in order not to shake things up too much. So, why aren’t their PR experts telling them to do what M.I.A. does, if that has been working out so well for her?

Simply because – it’s risky, it will get you in trouble, it upsets the status quo (and status quo is good for business, and business is all that matters). But M.I.A. won’t stick to the rules of business. In Born Free, she raps:

Yeah I don’t wanna live for tomorrow

I push my life today

I throw this in your face when I see ya

I got something to say

I throw this shit in your face when I see ya

Cause I got something to say

We really ought to ask ourselves what we want from our public figures. Should we really aim all the criticism towards the ones who are trying to open up the debate, who are giving space to new voices, who offer us new and different perspectives, who make us think, or make us feel uncomfortable? Are we really going to analyze them in detail, tear them apart, make them disposable? Do we really want to magnify their flaws, present them as the main thing about their work?

And at the same time, we will not say anything about all of those who create music that supports the system, that questions nothing, music that is just a nice sound and nothing else, music that is one long lullaby to our brain. They are ok, the damage that they are doing we do not see and do not question. But from M.I.A. we will demand consistency, adherence to principles all the time, in everything she does. And if she makes one mistake, we will call her a fake and say it’s time to give up on her?

Sure, that doesn’t mean we shloudn’t talk about the issues that exist. I don’t like the fact that M.I.A. decided to be fronting a recycling campaign for H&M, a company that relies on sweatshops and cheap third world labour. Even if you want to say they are making an effort (recycling and all) there’s an issue there too – those who recycle their clothes at H&M, which allows you to turn in garments at its stores year round, get a voucher for a discount on their next purchase, giving them incentive to buy more clothes. So yeah, it’s an issue.

Also, criticism of M.I.A.’s headlining of Afropunk have some truth to them – it is an event conceived by Black people, for Black people. But is it really just her fault, or was it also the organizers, who invited her in the first place? Aren’t they also complicit in erasing Black talent in this case? Those questions also need to be asked and we need to think about them, the same way we need to think about the importance of Black-Brown solidarity.

Now, back to that interview published in The New York Times. In it, it was also emphasized how M.I.A. said that instead of giving peace a chance we should maybe give war a chance, a stance then connected to her “militaristic and rebelious character”. I think this could be discussed on so many levels. For example, watching the Democratic National Convention (!) last week, you could hear much more horrifying things than what M.I.A. has (ever?) said.

General John Allen went out to say (yell might be a better word for it), among other things: “To our enemies, we will pursue you as only America can. You will fear us, we will defeat you”. I didn’t see much uproar about his and many other similar views expressed that night. If Hassan Rouhani yelled out something like that, it would be welcomed with terror. Because, you see, from the position of world dominance fueled with the (out of reality) idea of the “greatest nation in the world” it’s hard to recognize your own violent rethoric, your own exclusivity and aggression. That’s why it’s troubling to many when they hear lyrics like the ones in Bucky Done Gone from M.I.A.’s first album Arular:

Can I get control

Do you like me vulnerable

I’m armed and I’m equal

More fun for the people

Recently, M.I.A. has been criticised for her comments about Beyoncé and the Black Lives Matter movement, expressed in the interview in the Evening Standard. “It’s interesting that in America the problem you’re allowed to talk about is Black Lives Matter. It’s not a new thing to me – it’s what Lauryn Hill was saying in the 1990s, or Public Enemy in the 1980s”, she said.

She later added: “Is Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar going to say Muslim Lives Matter? Or Syrian Lives Matter? Or this kid in Pakistan matters? That’s a more interesting question. And you cannot ask it on a song that’s on Apple, you cannot ask it on an American TV programme, you cannot create that tag on Twitter, Michelle Obama is not going to hump you back.” Since the piece was published M.I.A. has clarified her position, saying she wasn’t criticising Beyoncé directly, or BLM, and that her point was that only certain issues are allowed to be discussed on “American platforms”.

What she is really questioning is American exception and hegemony, the larger American imperialist structure. Now, this is where we need to talk about unity, about the way the oppressed people can recognize each other’s struggles and the way their struggles are connected. It’s a chance to talk about the multiple layers of oppression that make up the complex realities we live in. Because it’s not only about racism, it’s not only about imperialism, it’s not only about capitalism, it’s not only about patriarchy. It’s about all of it combined. That is the struggle. Neither one of those alone can serve as a lens to understand all forms of power and all the issues we face – it is just not that simple. We need to recognize that in order to develop true solidarity.

As Akiba Solomon writes in Yes! Magazine, “My lips, so accustomed to spitting out ‘White supremacy’ and ‘racism,’ never once considered ‘patriarchy’ as a way to explain why things were so fucked up for people who were not White, heterosexual, able-bodied, traditionally masculine, cisgender males with money. This was true even as I saw the women closest to me doing feminist work.”

And finally, when it comes to M.I.A., I think one of the most important things about her is (one) that she is holding a mirror and (two) she is trying to own her story. And she won’t be silenced, she won’t play the game politely, she won’t be a puppet. Yeah, she’s flawed, and who isn’t? Unlike many, I think she’s actually willing to talk about it. You may not like what she has to say, and so what? That’s Karmageddon, baby.

Things do change and change can have range

System shouldn’t operate by sticking me in a cage

Ain’t Dalai Lama

Ain’t Sai Baba

My words are my armour and you’re about to meet your karma

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art of resistance, Qatar, Sudan

Khartoon! by Khalid Albaih.

kal/image © Khalid Albaih/

Khalid Albaih is a Romanian born Sudanese political cartoonist based in Doha, Qatar. He considers himself a virtual revolutionist, publishing his political cartoons about life in the Arab world on various blogs and websites.

As a loyal follower of his work, I couldn’t agree more. His Khartoon! facebook page is a place you should definitely visit. Here are some of his great cartoons, to get you excited about his work.

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//all images © Khalid Albaih//

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art of resistance, Pakistan

Tariq Ali: The Duel (excerpt).

The following is an excerpt from Tariq Ali’s book The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power (published by Simon & Schuster).

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“Books have a destiny. This is my third study of Pakistan. The first, Pakistan: Military Rule or People’s Power?, was written in 1969 and predicted the breakup of the state. It was banned in Pakistan. Critics of every persuasion, even those who liked the book, thought it was going too far in suggesting that the state could disintegrate, but a few years later that is exactly what happened. Just over a decade later I wrote Can Pakistan Survive? The question mark was not unimportant but nonetheless struck a raw nerve in General Zia’s Pakistan, where to even pose the question was unacceptable. The general himself was extremely angry about its publication, as were sections of the bureaucracy, willing instruments of every despotism. Zia attacked both me and the book at a press conference in India, which was helpful and much appreciated by the publisher’s sales department. That book too was banned, but to my delight was shamelessly pirated in many editions in Pakistan. They don’t ban books anymore, or at least not recently, which is a relief and a small step forward.

When I left in 1963, the country consisted of West and East Pakistan. Eight years later the East defected and became Bangladesh. The population of the Western wing was then 40-45 million. It has grown phenomenally ever since and is now approaching the 200 million mark. The under-thirties constitute a majority.

This book centers on the long duel between a U.S.-backed politico-military elite and the citizens of the country. In earlier years the State Department would provide the seconds for the duel, but with U.S. troops now in neighboring Afghanistan and U.S. bombs falling on homes inside Pakistan, the conflict is assuming a more direct form. Were it to proceed further, as some have been arguing in Washington, there is a distinct possibility that serious cracks would threaten the much-vaunted unity of the Pakistan military high command. The relationship with Washington, always controversial in the country, now threatens the Pakistan army. Political commentators in the United States together with a cabal of mimics in Pakistan regularly suggest that an Islamist revolution is incubating in a country that is seriously threatened by ‘jihadi terrorists.’ The only function of such a wild assertion is to invite a partial U.S. occupation and make the jihadi takeover a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The most important aspect of the duel is not the highly publicized conflict in Waziristan, but the divide between the majority of the people and their corrupt, uncaring rulers. This duel is often fought without weapons, sometimes in the mind, but it never goes away. An important reason for the deep hostility to the United States has little to do with religion, but is based on the knowledge that Washington has backed every military dictator who has squatted on top of the country. With Pakistan once again a strategic asset, the fear is that Washington will do so again, since it regards the military as the only functioning institution in the country, without showing any signs of comprehension as to why this is the case. This book might help in this regard.

What explains my continuing interest in Pakistan? I was born and educated there. Most of my family still lives there, and in periods when I haven’t been banned from entering the country, I visit regularly. I enjoy running into old friends and acquaintances, especially now that most of them have retired from important positions and can speak openly and laugh again. I never feel alone in Pakistan. Something of me stayed behind in the soil and the trees and the people so even in bad times I am welcome.

I love the mountains. At least they can’t be skyscrapered and forced to look like Dubai. Palm trees, Gulf kitsch, and the Himalayas don’t mix, not that it prevents some from trying. The cityscapes are something else. They have greatly changed over the years; new unplanned and poorly designed buildings have wrecked most of the larger towns. In Islamabad, the capital, one of the U.S. architects who built the city in the late sixties, Edward Stone, was unhappy with the site because it sat on a geological fault line and had weak soil. He advised that no building higher than three stories should ever be built there. He was ignored by the military dictator of the day. When a massive earthquake hit the country in 2005, buildings trembled all over Islamabad. I was there during the aftershocks, which were bad enough.

It was not only the earthquake that hurt Pakistan. This latest tragedy brought other wounds to the surface. A deeper and darker malaise, barely noticed by the elite and taken for granted by most citizens, had infected the country and was now publicly visible. The earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people shone a light on a country tainted by corrupted bureaucrats, army officers, and politicians, by governments rotten to the core, by protected mafias, and by the bloated profits of the heroin industry and the arms trade. Add to this the brutal hypocrisy of the Islamist parties, which exploit the state religion, and the picture is complete. Many ordinary people on the street, unsurprised by tales of privilege and graft, viewed the disaster in this context. At a state school in Lahore, students collecting toys for the children who’d survived the tragedy were asked whom they would like to address them. They voted unanimously against any politician, army officer, or civilian bureaucrat. They wanted a doctor.

None of this, of course, explains the urge to keep writing about a country. The reason is simple. However much I despise the callousness, corruption, and narcissism of a degenerate ruling elite, I have never allowed that to define my attitude toward the country. I have always harbored a deep respect and affection for the common people, whose instincts and intelligence, despite high levels of illiteracy, consistently display a much sounder appreciation of what the country requires than those who have lorded it over them since 1947. Any independent-minded Pakistani journalist or writer will confirm this view.

The people cannot be blamed for the tragedies that have afflicted their country. They are not to blame for the spirit of hopelessness and inescapable bondage that sometimes overcomes them. The surprise is that more of them don’t turn to extremist religious groups, but they have generally remained stubbornly aloof from all that, which is highlighted in every election, including the latest, held in February 2008. Given the chance, they vote in large majorities for those who promise social change and reforms and against those in power. They are always disappointed.

Colin Robinson, my long-standing editor, first at Verso, later at the New Press, and now at Scribner, was strongly convinced that I should write this book long before I was. His persistence paid off. His instincts were better than mine. As I was working on the book, Mary-Kay Wilmers, stern janitor of the London Review of Books, plucked a lengthy extract from the work-in-progress on Benazir Bhutto’s return home. It was, as readers will discover, sharply critical. Two weeks after I delivered it, as I was working on this manuscript, Bhutto was assassinated. Sentiment dictated I soften the prose, but despite my sadness and anger at her death, I resisted. As the German writer Lessing once remarked, ‘The man who presents truth in all sorts of masks and disguises may be her pander, but never her lover.’ And truth usually visits Pakistan in whispers. We owe it to the people to speak our minds. The death of Benazir, whom I knew well over many years, was undoubtedly tragic. But not sufficient reason to change my assessment. That she handed over her party to her husband till her son came of age was a sad reflection on the state of democratic politics in Pakistan and confirmed my judgment. The country needs a break from uniforms and dynasties.

My thanks are due to numerous people in Pakistan from all walks of life, from peasants and trade unionists to generals, civil servants, and old friends, who spoke without inhibition during my trips over the last few years. Naming them would not necessarily be construed as friendly. Thanks also, as always, to Susan Watkins, my companion for almost three decades, a friendly but firm editor of the New Left Review, as many contributors (myself included) have discovered.

When I began to write this book a London friend asked, ‘Isn’t it reckless to start a book while the dice is still in the air?’ If I waited for the dice to fall, I would never have written anything on Pakistan.”

• • •

For more on this book, go to Simon & Schuster.

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art of resistance, India

Arundhati Roy: The President Took The Salute.

A month ago, I published Arundhati Roy’s Feminism & Foundations, Burkas & Botox, excerpt from her new book Capitalism: A Ghost Story. Here is another great excerpt, the preface The President Took The Salute.

Capture/Arundhati Roy, photo by Chiara Goia for The New York Times/

“The Minister says that for India’s sake, people should leave their villages and move to the cities. He’s a Harvard man. He wants speed. And numbers. Five hundred million migrants he thinks, will make a good business model.

Not everybody likes the idea of their cities filling up with the poor. A judge in Bombay called slum dwellers pickpockets of urban land. Another said, while ordering the bulldozing of unauthorized colonies, that people who couldn’t afford to live in the cities shouldn’t live in them.

When those who had been evicted went back to where they came from, they found their villages had disappeared under great darns and duty quarries. Their homes were ocuppied by hunger – and policemen. The forests were filling up with armed guerrillas. They found that the wars from the edge of India, in Kashmir, Nagaland, Manipur, had migrated to its heart. People returned to live on city streets and pavements, in hovels on dusty construction sites, wondering which corner of this huge country was meant for them.

The minister said that migrants to cities were mostly criminals and ‘carried a kind of behavior which is unacceptable to modern cities.’ The middle class admired him for his forthrightness, for having the courage to call a spade a spade. The Minister said he would set up more police stations, recruit more policemen, and put more police vehicles on the road to improve law and order.

In the drive to beautify Delhi for the Commonwealth Games, laws were passed that made the poor vanish, like laundry stains. Street vendors disappeared, rickshaw pullers lost their licenses, small shops and businesses were shut down. Beggars were rounded up, tried by mobile magistrates in mobile courts, and dropped outside the city limits. The slums that remained were screened off, with vinyl billboards that said DELHIciously Yours.

New kinds of policemen parolled the streets, better armed, better dressed, and trained not to scratch their privates in public, no matter how grave the provocation. There were cameras everywhere, recording everything.

Two young criminals carrying a kind of behavior that was unacceptable to modern cities escaped the police dragnet and approached a woman sitting between her sunglasses  and the leather seats of her shiny car at a traffic crossing. Shamelessly they demanded money. The woman was rich and kind. The criminals’ heads were no higher than her car window. Their names were Rukmini and Kamli. Or maybe Mehrunissa and Shabbano. (Who cares.) The woman gave them money and some motherly advice. Ten rupees to Kamli (or Shabbano). ‘Share it’, she told them, and sped away when the lights changed.

Rukmini and Kamli (or Mehrunissa and Shabbano) tore into each other like gladiators, like lifers in a prison yard. Each sleek car that falshed past them, and almost crashed them, carried the reflection of their battle, their fight to the finish, on its shining door.

Eventually both girls disappeared without a trace, like thousands of children do in Delhi.

The Games were a sucess.

Two months later, on sixty-second anniversary of India’s Republic Day, the armed forces showcased their new weapons at the Republic Day parade: a missile launcher system, Russian multi-barrel rocket launchers, combat aircraft, light helicopters, and underwater weapons for the navy. The new T-90 battle tank was called Bhishma. (The older one was Ajrun.) Varunastra was the name of the latest heavyweight torpedo, and Mareech was a decoy system to seduce incoming torpedos. (Hanuman and Varja are the names painted on the armored vehicles that patrol Kasmir’s frozen streets.) The names from the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata were a coincidence. Dare Devils from the Army’s Corpes of Signals rode motorcycles in a rocket formation; then they formed a cluster of flying birds and finally a human pyramid.

The army band played the national anthem. The President took the salute.

Three Sukhoi fighter jets made a Trishul in the sky. Shiva’s Trishul. Is India a Hindu republic? Only accidentally.

The thrilled crowd turned its face up to the weak winter sun and applauded the aerobatics. High in the sky, the winking silver sides of the jets carried the reflection of Rukmini and Kamli’s (or Mehrunissa and Shabbano’s) fight to the death.”

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art of resistance

(Interview) Matthew Hoh: Veterans, America’s Wars & A Long Way To Go.

Matthew Hoh is a former State Department official who resigned from his post in Afghanistan in 2009. He did so in protest over US strategic policy and goals in Afghanistan. Prior to his assignment in Afghanistan, Hoh served in Iraq; first in 2004 and 2005 in Salah ad Din Province with a State Department reconstruction and governance team and then in 2006 and 2007 in Anbar Province as a Marine Corps company commander.

He’s the former  Director of the Afghanistan Study Group, a network of foreign and public policy experts and professionals advocating for a change in US strategy in Afghanistan. Hoh’s articles were published in The Huffington Post, Guardian, Washington Post and USA Today (to name a few) and he also runs his website, were he often writes about the torments he went through during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and particularly – about the despair he faced upon his return to USA, facing an everyday life as a veteran. I think his voice is truly important in times when, as Ingeborg Bachmann wrote:  „War is no longer declared, only continued. The monstrous has become everyday.“

In the following interview, Matthew and I talked about war, Middle East, veteran suicides, resistance, and the paradoxes of our (Western) governments.

Jonathan-Landay-Matthew-Hoh-5479cc/Matthew Hoh, photo: Dale Robbins/Moyers & Company/

This month, all over the USA, people are marking Veterans Day. You write a lot about your personal experience and hardships you went through after your second deployment to Iraq, when PTSD and severe depression took over your life. Alcohol was your weapon of choice at the time, but it couldn’t kill the thoughts of suicide. How are you today, how did you manage to go through that period? Did the strength of purpose coming from you activist work help you in that period?

I appreciate you asking me about this. I am doing much better today, thanks to the help of family, friends and many talented and compassionate mental health professionals. I must also say that I have received help from strangers. Fellow veterans who have spoken openly and publically about their difficulties, PTSD, alcohol, suicide, etc, have been of tremendous assistance. Their testimony has given me the courage to confront my problems and the strength to continue an often difficult and turbulent recovery.

My activist work helps me now, because as you describe it gives me a strength of purpose. However, I actually found that I needed to distance myself from the wars for a while and I needed to concentrate on myself. I needed to make my health and recovery my priority. I think this is an issue for many veterans, as veterans, so proud of being leaders and team players, often put others first and diminish their own sufferings and hardships to their own detriment.

Talking about suicide – we don’t have full data from all the US states, and as you said in some of the interviews you did – only a couple years ago the Veterans Administration (VA) started tracking veteran suicides on a national level. The estimates are that more than two veterans who kill themselves every day are Iraq or Afghanistan veterans. It actually means that more veterans have killed themselves after coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan than have been killed in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. Could you tell me more about that – the numbers and the dreadful presence of these demons of suicide?

Yes, that is the case. It was not until 2013 that the VA published suicide data on veterans that included data from the states rather than data only solely collected by the VA. This data is incomplete of course, as less than 40% of veterans are enrolled in the VA, and for the most recent data collected by the VA from the states, less than 30 states provided information. So we don’t really know how many veterans are killing themselves each day and this understanding, that the VA only recently began to estimate the total number of veterans suicides, belies the notion that the VA and the federal government were doing everything possible to assist veterans. This article from August in the USA Today does a good job explaining the deceit and deception that is ongoing in the VA’s handling of veteran suicides.

With regards to the numbers we do know, yes, based upon those figures, more service members have killed themselves after coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq than were killed or died in those countries. We estimate two Iraq or Afghan veterans kill themselves each day, that is 730 a year. Even taking into account latency for the suicides to begin to manifest and occur in the first few years of the wars, we still have a greater number of suicides than we do numbers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan (currently 6,841 Americans killed in Afghanistan and Iraq). Of course, even if we stopped our role in the wars today, and brought all of our troops home, we would still be coping with the suicide problem of veterans for as long as this generation lives. The suicides are not going to stop because the wars stop.

There is one other number that is startling and very foreboding and that is the number of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) among service members. TBIs have essentially tripled since 2000. There is a well known connection between TBI and suicide. This may be most well known in the American public because of the relationship that has been seen between American football players and suicide later in life. With TBIs, onset of symptoms and problems often experience a delay in emerging. Additionally, for many years during the wars, there was a requirement for service members to self report in order for a TBI to be recorded and care to be provided; self reporting is something service members are notorious for not doing, ie admitting they are hurt, weak or sick. So I believe that TBIs are under-reported and that what we know is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg in terms of future issues with veterans’ mental health needs and care.

Barack Obama recently talked about the increased troop deployment to Iraq, saying it marks a new phase against Islamic State militants. He said “we” need ground troops and it is time for an offensive strategy, rather than a defensive one. The language of “striking back” and “hitting harder” is ever-present, and it seems that we are stuck in a circle of associating courage with warfare, agreeing on a change achieved through violence. You fought in Iraq and served in Afghanistan, and you’ve seen war firsthand. What do you think about the latest news about increased troops on the ground?

I think this is a massive mistake and will lead to the widening and deepening of the war in Iraq and the war in Syria. It is a foolish decision by the President and I think it has more to do with assuaging his critics in the US than it does with dealing with the wars in Iraq and Syria.

We are seeing that the American bombing campaign has pushed Sunnis into further alignment with the Islamic State and this was to be expected  while not providing any incentive for the governments in Iraq or Syria to make political concessions or pursue any line of negotiation with the insurgents and the populations they represent in order to bring about a ceasefire or political settlement. Further, American involvement plays right into the propaganda and recruiting messages of the Islamic State. We have seen an increase in young men (and some women) heading to Syria and Iraq in order to defend their faith, their lands, and their people from Western attack. The same recruitment messages the United States used to enlist young Muslim men to go fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s is now being used to provide recruits to the Islamic State.

Finally, along with the counter-productive and short-sighted nature of the folly of introducing American troops into Iraq and Syria, there is also a moral component to this that is very, very important. The United States, under President Barack Obama, just as it did under President George W. Bush, is killing thousands of people in Muslim countries throughout the broader Middle East out of a fear and panic still emanating from the attacks of September 11, 2001, attacks conducted by an exceptionally small group of terrorists in retaliation for American policy and presence in the Middle East. Over the course of the last 13 years, American hysteria has led to the death, maiming and displacing of millions of people from North Africa to Afghanistan. This is a stain on the soul of America that has not even begun to be addressed by the US.

Returning to the previous question and the language charging politically-driven violence, being aware of the power of language and media presentations, I feel we (the public) are very often sure we know what Iraq war (and other wars too) is all about, but we are actually fed with very well selected and often distorted fragments of a broad story. Our knowledge, if we stick to mainstream media, is reduced to always repeating phrases uttered by politicians. That is how panic is created, and fear is born. I see that as a great danger for every society.

You talked about the dissonance, the disconnect between the policy that was being promulgated in Washington, D.C., statements that were being made, and the reality of the war on the ground in Iraq. The same narrative was present in Afghanistan in 2009 and that was when you decided you could no longer take part in it. Could you tell me more about that dissonance, which is, I believe, a formative tissue of all the wars we are seeing in the Middle East? And, in relation to that, how do we communicate those discrepancies to the mainstream public?

There is a tremendous dissonance between the narrative of those conducting the wars in the Middle East from the outside, the US and NATO, and those actually experiencing the wars in their homes, villages, cities, etc. To those in the West the wars are about protecting the West from terrorism, however to those in the Middle East these wars are about sectarian violence, whether it be religious or ethnic based, that has created a cycle of violence that builds on itself in a manner uncontrollable by any individual, group or nation. This has culminated in the Islamic State. The Islamic State is a Frankenstein, thought to have been an organization that outside powers could use for their own purposes, the destruction of the Assad regime in Syria, and it is a parasite of war, it gains strength and purpose as the cycle of violence spirals, recruiting outsiders with its propaganda of defending the Muslim community from outside attack, while gaining alliances with Sunnis who find no other alternative than aligning with the Islamic State.

These wars have many causes, but for those of us in the West, we cannot and should not ignore our responsibility and culpability. For decades the West, led by the United States, has pushed sectarian differences to keep dictators in power or to foster revolt and revolution in an attempt to create a power structure and political order amenable to Western interests. This culminated with the American invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, which has set forth the cataclysm that the broader Middle East finds itself enduring. Interestingly, the only nations that appear to be without the instability and violence characteristic of the Middle East are those Gulf Kingdoms that are despotic, but in line with US political interests and goals in the region. This understanding and discussion of the causes of Middle East violence is completely absent from US and Western discourse. Rather, the discussion is focused on terrorism or a line of belief that goes “those people have been killing each other for thousands of years”. Both these narratives, about keeping ourselves safe from terror or that the people of the Middle East are just crazy and full of bloodlust, are two narratives that fail to measure up to the actual ongoing wars, tragedies and events.

In one of your articles for Huffington Post, writing about recent events in Iraq, you write how “Certainly atrocities have occurred in northern Iraq and battles have waged there, but what makes this summer and its dead different than the 500,000 dead, millions wounded and the one in eight Iraqis forcibly chased from their homes since 2003? What is causing the U.S. to get involved, again, and at this time? Oil.” Could you tell me more about that, about the issues of U.S. involvement at this moment in time?

The reference I was making in that article was to the decision by the United States in August to begin attacking Islamic State and Sunni forces, with the attendant and inevitable killing of innocents, as a result of Sunni incursion into Kurdish territory, and, importantly, Sunni threatening of Kurdish oil and gas fields.

In June, this year, when the Iraqi Army collapsed in Northern Iraq, Sunni and Kurdish forces filled the void left behind.  Most attention in the West was devoted to the Sunni capture of key cities along the Tigris and a push towards Baghdad, and little acknowledgement was made to the fact that Kurdish forces expanded Kurdish controlled territory in northern Iraq by 40%. This included Kurdish capture of a majority of the oil and gas fields in the north of Iraq, as well as the Kurds gaining complete control of Kirkuk, a traditional Kurdish capital (at least according to the Kurds), and the oil capital of North Iraq.

Control of the oil and gas in the north by the Kurds was not just a gain to the Kurdish Regional Government and their many western benefactors, but was also a serious economic threat to the Sunnis, hence the push by the Sunnis and the Islamic State to capture oil and gas fields.

The threatening of Kurdish oil fields alarmed many in the West, including members of the US government and Congress, who besieged by policy experts supported by the oil and gas industry, as well as a $1.5 million annual Kurdish lobbying effort in Washington, DC, panicked at the threat posed by the Islamic State and the Sunnis. Alongside this push for the oil fields, the Islamic State publically beheaded American hostages and began a murderous campaign against the Yezidi minority. These two later “humanitarian” concerns were the focus of much media attention and public statements for the need for America to go to war again in Iraq. However, I believe it was the threat posed to the Kurdish oil fields that posed the impetus for American involvement. I think this is proven by the location of most of the targets struck by American bombers in August and September and their relation to the oil fields as opposed to the location of humanitarian concerns or atrocities.

Veteran Thomas Young died two weeks ago. He finished his last letter (The Last Letter – A Message to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney From a Dying Veteran) writing: “My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.” Do you think Bush, Cheney or Obama will ever be held responsible for what they did and what they do? Is there a way to redeem ourselves from all the moral outrage that was and is done?

Sadly, no I do not think Bush or Obama will be held responsible in any formal way. I do think history will judge them and that the folly of their actions, along with the moral failing of American policy in the Middle East, will be recognized.  Whether or not that keeps the United States from perpetuating such madness and horror in the future is another matter.

The way we redeem ourselves is to fight for acknowledgement of the truth of these wars and to put ourselves in positions to speak against not just the current wars, but future wars. If for no other purpose we do this than to give a voice to the millions of the voiceless men, women and children who have suffered, horrifically and unjustly, in these wars, than that is purpose enough.

• • •

For more on Matthew Hoh and his activism, visit his website.

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art of resistance, Iraq

Riverbend: Ten Years Later, Baghdad Still Burning.

It’s been months, well – probably years since I last time opened Riverbend’s blog. It was in the period of 2003 – 2007 that her blog opened my eyes – and the eyes of many, showing us what liberation is like to Iraqi people. Then there was the book – Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog From Iraq, a compilation of her blog entries for part of 2003 and 2004. Riverbend’s writing was intelligent, witty, warm, passionate, informative, and it always seemed to me – she was as honest as a person can be. Opening her blog today – made me miss her writing so much.

Well, there was something there for me – for all of us who have missed her for years now. She published one more post, first one since 2007. Published in April of 2013, it’s her last one. I wish to repost it here, because I find it so important and relevant (I think it will remain relevant and important for a long time to come, considering the situation in Iraq and Middle East generally).

Ten Years On…

April 9, 2013 marks ten years since the fall of Baghdad. Ten years since the invasion. Since the lives of millions of Iraqis changed forever. It’s difficult to believe. It feels like only yesterday I was sharing day to day activities with the world. I feel obliged today to put my thoughts down on the blog once again, probably for the last time.

In 2003, we were counting our lives in days and weeks. Would we make it to next month? Would we make it through the summer? Some of us did and many of us didn’t. 

Back in 2003, one year seemed like a lifetime ahead. The idiots said, “Things will improve immediately.” The optimists were giving our occupiers a year, or two… The realists said, “Things won’t improve for at least five years.” And the pessimists? The pessimists said, “It will take ten years. It will take a decade.”

Looking back at the last ten years, what have our occupiers and their Iraqi governments given us in ten years? What have our puppets achieved in this last decade? What have we learned?

We learned a lot.

We learned that while life is not fair, death is even less fair- it takes the good people. Even in death you can be unlucky. Lucky ones die a ‘normal’ death… A familiar death of cancer, or a heart-attack, or stroke. Unlucky ones have to be collected in bits and pieces. Their families trying to bury what can be salvaged and scraped off of streets that have seen so much blood, it is a wonder they are not red. 

We learned that you can be floating on a sea of oil, but your people can be destitute. Your city can be an open sewer; your women and children can be eating out of trash dumps and begging for money in foreign lands. 

We learned that justice does not prevail in this day and age. Innocent people are persecuted and executed daily. Some of them in courts, some of them in streets, and some of them in the private torture chambers.

We are learning that corruption is the way to go. You want a passport issued? Pay someone. You want a document ratified? Pay someone. You want someone dead? Pay someone. 

We learned that it’s not that difficult to make billions disappear. 

We are learning that those amenities we took for granted before 2003, you know- the luxuries – electricity, clean water from faucets, walkable streets, safe schools – those are for deserving populations. Those are for people who don’t allow occupiers into their country. 

We’re learning that the biggest fans of the occupation (you know who you are, you traitors) eventually leave abroad. And where do they go? The USA, most likely, with the UK a close second. If I were an American, I’d be outraged. After spending so much money and so many lives, I’d expect the minor Chalabis and Malikis and Hashimis of Iraq to, well, stay in Iraq. Invest in their country. I’d stand in passport control and ask them, “Weren’t you happy when we invaded your country? Weren’t you happy we liberated you? Go back. Go back to the country you’re so happy with because now, you’re free!” 

We’re learning that militias aren’t particular about who they kill. The easiest thing in the world would be to say that Shia militias kill Sunnis and Sunni militias kill Shia, but that’s not the way it works. That’s too simple. 

We’re learning that the leaders don’t make history. Populations don’t make history. Historians don’t write history. News networks do. The Foxes, and CNNs, and BBCs, and Jazeeras of the world make history. They twist and turn things to fit their own private agendas. 

We’re learning that the masks are off. No one is ashamed of the hypocrisy anymore. You can be against one country (like Iran), but empowering them somewhere else (like in Iraq). You can claim to be against religious extremism (like in Afghanistan), but promoting religious extremism somewhere else (like in Iraq and Egypt and Syria). 

Those who didn’t know it in 2003 are learning (much too late) that an occupation is not the portal to freedom and democracy. The occupiers do not have your best interests at heart. 

We are learning that ignorance is the death of civilized societies and that everyone thinks their particular form of fanaticism is acceptable. 

We are learning how easy it is to manipulate populations with their own prejudices and that politics and religion never mix, even if a super-power says they should mix. 

But it wasn’t all a bad education… 

We learned that you sometimes receive kindness  when you least expect it. We learned that people often step outside of the stereotypes we build for them and surprise us. We learned and continue to learn that there is strength in numbers and that Iraqis are not easy to oppress. It is a matter of time… 

And then there are things we’d like to learn…

Ahmed Chalabi, Iyad Allawi, Ibrahim Jaafari, Tarek Al Hashemi and the rest of the vultures, where are they now? Have they crawled back under their rocks in countries like the USA, the UK, etc.? Where will Maliki be in a year or two? Will he return to Iran or take the millions he made off of killing Iraqis and then seek asylum in some European country? Far away from the angry Iraqi masses… 

What about George Bush, Condi, Wolfowitz, and Powell? Will they ever be held accountable for the devastation and the death they wrought in Iraq? Saddam was held accountable for 300,000 Iraqis… Surely someone should be held accountable for the million or so?

Finally, after all is said and done, we shouldn’t forget what this was about – making America safer… And are you safer Americans? If you are, why is it that we hear more and more about attacks on your embassies and diplomats? Why is it that you are constantly warned to not go to this country or that one? Is it better now, ten years down the line? Do you feel safer, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis out of the way (granted half of them were women and children, but children grow up, right?)?

And what happened to Riverbend and my family? I eventually moved from Syria. I moved before the heavy fighting, before it got ugly. That’s how fortunate I was. I moved to another country nearby, stayed almost a year, and then made another move to a third Arab country with the hope that, this time, it’ll stick until… Until when? Even the pessimists aren’t sure anymore. When will things improve? When will be able to live normally? How long will it take?  

For those of you who are disappointed reality has reared its ugly head again, go to Fox News, I’m sure they have a reportage that will soothe your conscience. 

For those of you who have been asking about me and wondering how I have been doing, I thank you. “Lo khuliyet, qulibet…” Which means “If the world were empty of good people, it would end.” I only need to check my emails to know it won’t be ending any time soon. 

/Published on Baghdad Burning, written by Riverbend/

Thank you Riverbend, may you stay safe and peace be upon you. Meet you where hearts can heal and souls can mend.

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