art of resistance, Israel, Israeli - Palestinian conflict, Palestine

(Interview) Eyal Sivan: God doesn’t exist, but he promised us the land.

izkor/Photo: Izkor/

Documentary filmmaker and theoretician Eyal Sivan was born in Israel, which he left in 1985 and settled in Paris. Known for his controversial films, Sivan directed more than 10 worldwide awarded political documentaries and produced many others. (Common State, 2012., Jaffa, 2009., Route 181, 2003., The Specialist, 1999., Izkor, 1990…).

He is the founder and was the first Chief Editor of South Cinema Notebooks – a journal of cinema and political critic edited by the Sapir academic college in Israel where he lectures regularly. In the last years Sivan was Reader (associate professor) in media production at the school of Arts and Digital Industries (ADI), at the University of East London (UEL) were he was co-leading the MA program in Film, video and new media.

Three of Sivan’s films were shown during this year’s Human Rights Film Festival in Zagreb and Rijeka, and he also held a masterclass lecture about political and historical documentary filmmaking. We talk with Sivan about the political behind the filmmaking, zionism and the use of memory, and the shift of paradigm in relation to Palestine and Israel, and the conflict that has been shaping the Israeli-Palestinian society for decades.

Doing documentaries the way you do them, engaging in direct political cinema, what are your biggest concerns and responsibilites? What do you need to “get right” when approaching the stories in an openly political manner and dealing with diverse historical narratives and alternative viewpoints?

I don’t think there are fears in doing what I do, but there is question of duty. The question is not to make propaganda, the question is how to provoke thinking, how to provoke debate. The contemporary society, the society we live in, values mediocracy and non-thinking. We have many examples, the most recent one is Trump, a star of a reality show becoming a president. It shows how we value the show before the content.

My biggest political critique is the question of equality. I wan to put together a notion of equality between me and the spectator – I believe that the spectator can think and is inteligent. I am trying to be coherent between my political demands and my ethical views. I am not afraid of discussion, I am not afraid of thinking. On the contrary, I am afraid of all the opposite. I am afraid when people are giving answers before posing the questions. That is why I believe that my films that were done twenty years ago are still alive in the debate. It’s not so much about the fact that the situation didn’t change in the Arab world, it’s because those are films that go beyond the actual momentum.

What’s interesting to me is that a lot of times in cinema, political cinema is discarded as less of an art. There is also an establishement agenda saying that the more openly political you get the less acknowledged you might be as an artist. Even in the documentary filmmaking, there is more and more emphasis on aesthetics, on the experimental in relation to the medium, and less regard for the content.

This is a part of the post-modern relation to art in general. First of all, the history of documentary filmmaking is very political. My work, especially for the last couple of years, as a director and as a teacher, deals greatly with the critique of documentary filmmaking, especially when it comes to colonialism and colonial anthropology. When we go back to the invention of cinema, look at the first films by brothers Lumière – they first sent their cameras to the Orient. In that sense, documentary filmmaking promoted the idea of otherness, it helped establishing “us” in relation to “them”.

Here, we could quote Godard – tell me what’s a non-political film? Animal documentaries are very political, pornography is very political. All the films are political, especially those that are presented as non-political. The question is not about the political cinema vs. the non-political cinema, the question is about making films politically, or not making films politically. The question is about the political conscience behind it. If we think about the history of documentary filmmaking, the masterpieces are the most politically made films. The point is, and this is what I always say to young filmmakers, to ask – why you on this subject?

Just an example – the easiest is me Croatian, me Israeli, me American, going to shoot the peasants, the traditions – that is humanitarian cinema. Political cinema is when I am bourgeois filming the bourgeoisie.

Let’s discuss you, Israeli, on Israeli identity. In Israel there seems to be a big emphasis on Jewish identity in opposition to Israeli identity. We can argue that emphasis on Israeli identity would be a more inclusive one. Why is that so, why wasn’t there a greater effort in creating a citizenship identity?

I’m not sure I would completely agree with that division. I think that the emphasis is not between Jewish and Israeli identity, the emphasis is on Zionist identity, which is very different. It’s important to remember that Zionism, i.e. Jewish national movement, was established against Judaism. If Judaism was characterized as religious and cultural identity, Zionism tried to transform that identity into a national one – what I call the nationalisation of Judaism. Israel is, in that sense, the nationalisation of Judaism.

Let’s rephrase the question – why the emphasis on the Zionist identity instead of the citizenship identity?

It is because Israel was established as a state for the Jews, which makes Israel a racist state. It’s not a state that practices racism, there are many states that practice racism. There is a difference between state racism and a racist state – in Israel we have both. In France we have state racism, but it’s not a racist state because it is based on the idea of citizenship.

Israel is based on the idea of a state for Jews only. What is interesting is that most of the founding fathers of Israel, coming from Eastern Europe, were secular and they called themselves socialist, although I wouldn’t call them that. They wanted to break with the religion and were atheist, and I would summarize their position into a sentence that is – “God doesn’t exist, but he promised us the land”. That is the internal paradox of Zionism.

Now, why aren’t there any efforts to change that – because the idea is all the time to keep the privileged, let’s call them the white society, the dominant ones, in power. It’s like asking the question why our society is a patriarchal society – it’s to keep the privileged privileged. It’s about domination. It brings us to the conclusion that Israel has the structure of the settler colonialist society, just like it was in South Africa, or in the USA until the 70s. It’s about the idea that segregation is a possibility to give the power to the certain parts of the society and at the same time maintain the status quo and pretend you are a democracy.

students/photo: Izkor/

In relation to that, one thing that’s interesting in your film Izkor, is that it touches on the issue of the lack of representation of the Mizrahim Jews in the Israeli society. So, yes, Israel is a Jewish state, but there are also differences in relation to what sort of a Jew you are, how you look like, where you come from.

Every segregated society has nuances to it, it’s never black and white. That was the case in South Africa and that is the case in Israel. It’s interesting to see two things in Israel – one thing is that we have a segregated society, we have a majority, European Jews, that are the dominant ones in power, then you have the so called oriental Jews, Mizrahim Jews, which are in fact Jews originally from the Arab world, then you have the Ethiopian Jews which are even lower in society, and in the end you have the Palestians at the bottom.

Israel, with its western ideology, played into the orientalist notions which are that the Orient is primitive, non-rational, etc. Which means that the for the Western Jews Jews from the Arab countries didn’t look Jewish enough. To be Jew would be to also be white, to deny the fact that you are oriental, to deny the fact that you are an Arab. Unfortunately, Oriental Jews were used against the Arabs in Israel.

In what way were they used against the Arabs?

First of all, they were used in order to deny their identity. If you look at the way the Israel presents itself to the outside world, it is very much western – even here in Croatia, I saw so many books by Amos Oz. Why is Amos Oz popular? Beacuse his wiriting is close to the West, it is familiar, there is a recognition between his writing and the western readers.

Now, with the Oriental Jews the story is different. There are two great catastrophies of Zionism – one is what happened to Palestinians, other is what happened to Mizrahim Jews. In the case of Mizrahim Jews, the tragedy is that they had to choose between two parts of themselves. What happened is that the masses of the Arab Jews, in order to prove that they are not Arab, became the right-wing masses. Obviously, this poses the question of the integration – for the future of Israel and any other state in the Middle East.

The question is how to become a part of the society? In Israeli case, the ones that can be the bridge, the ones that belong to the both worlds – are the Oriental Jews. They have the culture, they have the memory, even if it is a denying memory at the moment. It is stupid that we have to repeat all the time that the genocide of the Jews happened in the West. There was no genocide or persecution of Jews in the East, in the Arab world, in the Muslim world. Suddenly, the former anti-semitic countries are becoming the best friends of Israel and the Arab countries are looked at as the enemies. I always like to say – if there’s any fear in me as a Jew, it’s always from Europe.

What about the Arabic language, and the ways it was suppressed in the case of Oriental Jews?

Most of the Oriental Jews, second and third generation, they don’t speak Arabic at all. It’s not only that they don’t speak Arabic – they were ashamed of their parents, of the music of their parents, of the language of their parents. Why? Because what was valued was western culture. I was never ashamed of the fact that my grandparent talked Yiddish, I couldn’t be ashamed because in school the western writers in Yiddish were very valued. It made me feel acknowledged, I could recognize myself in school, while the Oriental Jews of my age, from Iraqi families – never found themselves in the books.

Another paradox is that the popular culture, even today in Israel, is the oriental, eastern culture. People are listening to that sort of music, for example. But it is important to make it clear that while it is the majority of the population – it is a minority culture. The culture of the state, on the institutional level, is western, and what Israel presents on the outside is western.

What’s really interesting in terms of shaping of the identity in Israel is the obligatory army service. You also deal with that in Izkor, posing the question do we raise people to be good soldiers, is that the aim of education? Maybe we could discuss that a little bit – how important is the obligatory army service in shaping the minds of the young men and women in Israel?

It’s fundamental. The army in israel is not a question of the military, it is the question of the making of a citizen. That is the collective element. I think that had a huge effect on me personally – I think I took such a perspective distance from Israel because I didn’t do my military service. The military service, coming at the age of 18, is castrating the critical ways of the youth.

What is means to be 18 or 19? It’s time to fuck around, to take drugs, to think you can change the world, to rebel… But if at that age, after high school, you end up in a system that allows you to cope only through obedience – it is castration of the critical element of the youth. It’s also the time of building up the illusion of fighting on the good side, of being only the victims – and that becomes a permanent position later on in life.

Imagine it, you’re 17, you’re at home, you’re fighting with your family, you’re challenging the hierarchy and authority – it is all normal, and then you go to the army and obey somebody who is a couple of years older than you. You are not a woman or a man anymore, you are a soldier. I remember the shock of visiting my sister in a military base when she was doing her service. Hundreds of girls, all looking the same, with the same clothes, with the same haircut – exactly the contrary of youth, of how things are supposed to be at that moment in their lives. It transforms you from an individual into a collective.

What are the experiences with your students, after they do their army service?

It happens that I am meeting my students after they did their army service and most of them go to Asia and South America to smoke dope and they are trying to liberate themselves. After that they go back to university and they say the same things, they have the same reactions, they are like robots of the system but they think that they think individually. Why? Because they were put in an uncritical system in the moment when they were supposed to be most critical.

And that is only one aspect of it. We can talk about all the others things – how it gets us into a situation were we have a society of traumatised people and we have a society with extremely high rates of domestic violence. When violence is legal, where will you draw the line? And all of this is not even talking about Palestinians – it’s only about the damage done for the Israeli society.

Izkor revolves around the question why do we (choose to) remember, what it serves, what is the purpose of it – talking about the collective memory. In the film, the protagonists don’t know how to answer that question – they know they need to remember, but can’t explain why.  We could maybe talk about the role of memory in Israeli society and compare it with the role of memory among Palestinians, like the memory of Nakba. Why is it, in the Palestinian case, important to remember and (how) does it differ from Israeli case?

This question is important because it raises a bigger discussion. A film that is only local remains a discussion anegdote, and that is not enough. The film has to be an example which reflects on the bigger issue. Izkor is produced in Israel, done in Israel, about the Israeli society, but at the same time – Israel is my lab. It’s the place to go from to talk about something bigger.

We can discuss the role of memory among Palestinians, or the role of memory in Croatia – how do we compare the memory of oppression in communism against the memory of Ustaša regime. Those are the questions we all face.

The question here is to understand what is memory. The idea of memory is that it prevents oblivion. That is rubbish. I am saying like Goethe said – when I hear the word memory, I wonder what was forgotten? Always when there is memory, there is something that is forgotten. That is the case with collective memory, but also with individual memory. You always forget certain things in order to keep others – that is how memory works. Memory is an interaction between keeping and erasing, just like cinema.

It’s like a frame – it is built of what is there and what is not there. You have to forget in order to keep, you have to hide in order to show. The question is what happens when power, social power, political power, comes into the story and considers that there is good and bad memory, that there are things that should be remembered and things that shouldn’t be remembered.

commonstate_pic2_en_copy97689/Photo: Common State/

That is where we see the difference between collective memory and individual memory.

Exactly. Individual memory doesn’t regard anyone beside itself, while collective memory is imposed, it’s always a tool. Collective memory, always in the history, is between two figures – victim and hero. Where are the collaborators, the cowards, the perpetrators? They don’t exist. In Israel it is obvious. We have the memory of shoa, the memory of us as victims of Second world war, and the memory of Ghetto uprising and the heroes of the wars. It’s like in Hollywood cinema, were you also only have victims and heroes. But real life isn’t like that.

Through Izkor, which is a sort of climax of memory in Israel, it becomes obvious that the problem is when you build your national memory or your collective memory, you end up in a binary division – “you” vs. “me”, “they” vs. “us”. In relation to Palestinian memory in the Israeli society, we have to look at what is being erased. The question is to emphasize not what is remembered, but what is forgotten in the process of memorization. It is also important to understand something that is an illusion that was built up after the Second world war, a total western illusion, that memory is like a vaccine, that people will give memory to young generations and they will be vaccinated against doing what was done in the past.

That is not correct. If we look back in recent history and recent wars, we see that people fought in the name of their memory. Because of the memory they felt they were victims and they allowed themselves to be perpetrators and considered that all that they are doing is self-defense, like the Israelis. If I am building my identity on the fact that I am a victim, even if I am the attacker, it shows that memory can be a tool of violence, and not a tool against violence.

You’ve talked now how the stories we tell have been changed after the Second world war, and your film Jaffa: The orange’s clockwork deals a lot with that. Through this product, a brand that was formed, the whole history of the land and the people was also changed.

With the process of building a national memory there are objects, there are symbols, there are places, etc. In the history of Zionism a build up of the national identity is verly linked to the question of image. There are many reasons for that. Zionism appears almost in the same time as the invention of cinema and photography, so it used a very contemporary thing which was the image in order to build itself.

That is interesting because if you think about the national revolutions that proceeded Zionism, we don’t have a trace in terms of image, and if you think about those that came after – they are completely linked to image. In the case of Israel and Palestine, orange became a symbol, and what is interesting to observe – it’s a round thing, and from every side you look at it, it looks the same. The orange is both an object of rupture, because there are two completely different visions around it, but it’s also the common one. What was interesting to me was to use this element, which carries the memory of the division, but also of commonality – so it can become the key of memory for the future.

Talking about the future – most of the thinkers, activists, artists, that deal with Israeli-Palestinian conflict in depth, have come to terms that one-state solution is the only solution, considering the reality on the ground. You made the film Common state: A possible conversation, and it is very much connected to that idea. Could you talk about, how embraced is the idea of one-state solution?

In order to talk in terms of solutions, we have to ask what’s the problem to solve. One of the things to consider is that the history of the Palestine question since the beginning of 20th century was always looked at through the paradigm of division, of partition. There is a problem and we will solve it by division. The idea of separation between the population or division of the territory is the paradigm that brought the war, each and every time – in 1948, in 1967, etc.

Maybe the mistake is this paradigm of the solution because the problem is not how to divide Palestinians and Israelis, or Arabs and Jews, the problem is how to make people live together peacefully. If the partition paradigm didn’t work it’s maybe because it is the wrong paradigm to solve the problem. If everybody agrees on two-state solution, the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority, the UN, the Arab League the EU, the whole world – why isn’t it happening?

The problem is that what you are posing as the solution is actually a problem. The paradigm should be how to find a way to make this territory the territory for all, and the question then is the question of citizenship. I am not coming from the utopian solution, I am coming from reality. There is no way to divide the population – in every place that lives an Arab, lives a Jew. There is no way to divide the population physically, there is no way to divide the territory – who will have the water, who will have the desert?

This is why there is more and more people thinking about the shift of the paradigm. I am not necessarily talking about one state, I am talking about a common state. It could be a federal state, it could be a regional state, one state doesn’t mean the same thing for everybody. Is it a secular democratic state, is it a binational state?

For me the documentary is not a genre, it’s an attitude. It’s about looking at reality and constructing with reality. I am looking at the reality of PalestineIsrael, and I am intentionally using that word instead of Palestine and Israel, because I see that the same place for one is Palestine and for the other is Israel. In cinema terms, that is what we call point of view. The question is how can I put two points of view into one frame?

jaffa_10_copy51688/Photo: Jaffa – The Orange’s Clockwork/

You left Israel, but you visit constantly and you are making films there. How are your films received in Israel?

My films are more discussed than seen. That is because I refuse the division between a politcal stand and my films, so the question is often who is Eyal Sivan, and not what he is doing. People are talking about my films like they’ve seen them, but they didn’t. For every person who likes me, there are at least fifty that hate me. There is a consensus that I am not a bad filmmaker, but I am bad person politically.

But still, films like Izkor remain a reference point, twenty-five years later. It’s a films that was forbidden in cinemas at the time, but is now thought in most of the schools, education departments, cinema departments. We could pose the question of the impact of cinema here – young filmmakers today are very occupied with that idea, due to the social media and everything. For me, the question of the impact is like a stone in the lake – you throw it and it makes a kind of waves that you cannot know what and when will happen. If I am looking back at my work and the situation in Israel and Israeli cinema, I see that there is a dialogue between what’s happening. Basically, I think that my cinema posed a line of radicality. Not many young filmmakers were radical enough.

Why weren’t they radical?

Because they went to the army. Because it is more difficult to be in the margins than in the mainstream. Because many people are making political films, but they are not making films politically. There is a gap in the art form, in the cinema world – artists care more about their asses than about what’s going on around them. But mostly because when you are on the privileged side you risk much more than when you are on the oppressed side.

Why is women cinema much more radical with the question of feminism than the male cinema? It’s much more difficult to renounce on privilege when you have them. This comes back to the very beginning of our discussion – what is the big Israeli question? The Israeli question is to renounce some of our privileges. Why am I using the feminist example – because it is the most political one, and the most universal one. At the end of my film Common state, an important feminist, 80-year- old activist says: “The question is the willingness to share power or not” . It’s not about equal rights, we’ve gone beyond that discussion, sharing the power is what is important. It means men have to renounce some of their power.

We can compare that with the current situation with refugees in Europe – it’s also about the unwillingness to share power, to be able to renounce some of our privileges if necessary.

Of course. The problem is not the refugees, the problem is that we don’t want to share. Suddenly, a middle class person acts like a multi-billionare, not wanting the share with refugees, the same way a multi-billionare doesn’t want to share with a middle class person.

If we take Europe today and the gap between salaries of men and women – you often hear there’s not enough money to raise the salaries for women. To that I say – ok, then the solution is that men should get lesser salaries and there would be enough money for equal pay for women. The same thing goes for refugees, and the same thing goes for Israel and Palestinians. All the time we hear this “we will give you rights” talk. What does that mean? Who is the one giving the rights? Who has the power? Can the Palestinians give Israelis rights? Women to men?

And back to the Israeli filmmakers – they are among the most privileged ones.That is why I am for the cultural boycott – I believe that is the only way for the Israeli cultural and academic institutions to understand the lack of privilege and that is the way they will become more critical and radicalised.

Why do you have to radicalise? Let’s mention Amos Oz again. His discourse is a mainstream discourse, and everybody around the world is amazed – Oz talks about peace, Israel is a great democracy because there are people like Amos Oz representing it. But that is not the way to look at things. It’s a twist on reality. If we look at the history of 20th century – evil always came from the mainstream, never from the extreme.

• • •

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

 

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art of resistance

In Defence Of M.I.A.

mia borders video/photo: ytb-prtsc, Borders video/

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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Algeria, art of resistance, Morocco, Tunisia

The Book To Read: The French Intifada.

Aulnay-sous-Bois-Nov-2005-Photo-by-Leopold-Lambert/Danger Effondrement (Danger Collapse) in Aulnay-sous-Bois (North-Eastern Paris banlieue), photo © Léopold Lambert, 2005/

I was really looking forward to reading Andrew Hussey’s new book The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and its Arabs, and it didn’t dissapoint me, on the contrary – it held up to my expectations.

To fully understand both the social and political pressures wracking contemporary France – and all of Europe – as well as major events from the Arab Spring in the Middle East to the tensions in Mali, Andrew Hussey argues that we have to look beyond the confines of domestic horizons.

As much as unemployment, economic stagnation, and social deprivation exacerbate the ongoing turmoil in the banlieues (the urban hotspots for tension and bouts of rioting), Hussey describes how the root of the problem lies elsewhere: in the continuing fallout from Europe’s colonial era.

In banlieues in Paris, Hussey writes, there is a lot of anger, young men willing to turn themselves into Soldiers for God. The rioters, wreckers, even the killers of the banlieues are looking primarily for justice – their (hi)story has deep wounds all over it.

the french

Hussey knows his subject well and it is evident in his writing. He identifies the current situation in France today, dissects it like a surgeon. Predominantly white, well maintained, metropolitan cities bordered by run down and poorly funded suburbs (banlieues) housing significant numbers of Arab and North African Muslim migrants.

“For all their modernity, these urban spaces are designed almost like vast prison camps. The banlieue is the most literal representation of otherness – the otherness of exclusion, of the repressed, of the fearful and despised – all kept physically and culturally away from the mainstream of French ‘civilization'”, Hussey writes.

The French Intifada is very readable, full of examples, little stories, interesting references – Hussey easily moves from Zinedine Zidane to Albert Camus and Frantz Fanon.

A large amount of anger and hatred amongst the French “immigrant” population stems from the French history in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Whilst none of the European power’s empires can claim to be truly benevolent, French conduct in all three nations was devastating, particularly in Algeria.

The great portion of the book is dedicated to Algeria and the conduct of the French colons there. That is understandable since Algeria really was (and still is) the country when it comes to French colonialism.

Hussey explains how the development of the ethnically French Pied-Noirs in Algeria over the years has also contributed much antagonism and anger, both among the French and the Algerians themselves.

Hussey does what’s necessary (and so often lacking in media representations and public dicussions) – he goes back through history, he offers context, he tries to understand why and how something happened, and not just what happened.

The French Intifada shows that the defining conflict of the twenty-first century will not be between Islam and the West (the so-called clash of the civilizations) but between two dramatically different experiences of the world – the colonizers and the colonized.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

The Librarian of Basra

A Hand Full Of Stars

Palestinian Walks: Notes On A Vanishing Landscape

Night Draws Near

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Algeria, art of resistance

Frantz Fanon: Concerning Violence (part two).

The following is an excerpt from Frantz Fanon’s classic The Wretched of the Earth. It is a continuation of an excerpt I posted two months ago.

F.-Fanon/Frantz Fanon, photo via Zimbabwe Daily/

“Monsieur Meyer could state seriously in the French National Assembly that the Republic must not be prostituted by allowing the Algerian people to become part of it. All values, in fact, are irrevocably poisoned and diseased as soon as they are allowed in contact with the colonized race. The customs of the colonized people, their traditions, their myths — above all, their myths–are the very sign of that poverty of spirit and of their constitutional depravity. That is why we must put the DDT which destroys parasites, the bearers of disease, on the same level as the Christian religion which wages war on embryonic heresies and instincts, and on evil as yet unborn. The recession of yellow fever and the advance of evangelization form part of the same balance sheet. But the triumphant communiqués from the missions are in fact a source of information concerning the implantation of foreign influences in the core of the colonized people. I speak of the Christian religion, and no one need be astonished. The Church in the colonies is the white people’s Church, the foreigner’s Church. She does not call the native to God’s ways but to the ways of the white man, of the master, of the oppressor. And as we know, in this matter many are called but few chosen.

At times this Manicheism goes to its logical conclusion and dehumanizes the native, or to speak plainly, it turns him into an animal. In fact, the terms the settler uses when he mentions the native are zoological terms. He speaks of the yellow man’s reptilian motions, of the stink of the native quarter, of breeding swarms, of foulness, of spawn, of gesticulations. When the settler seeks to describe the native fully in exact terms he constantly refers to the bestiary. The European rarely hits on a picturesque style; but the native, who knows what is in the mind of the settler, guesses at once what he is thinking of.

Those hordes of vital statistics, those hysterical masses, those faces bereft of all humanity, those distended bodies which are like nothing on earth, that mob without beginning or end, those children who seem to belong to nobody, that laziness stretched out in the sun, that vegetative rhythm of life–all this forms part of the colonial vocabulary. General de Gaulle speaks of ‘the yellow multitudes’ and François Mauriac of the black, brown, and yellow masses which soon will be unleashed. The native knows all this, and laughs to himself every time he spots an allusion to the animal world in the other’s words. For he knows that he is not an animal; and it is precisely at the moment he realizes his humanity that he begins to sharpen the weapons with which he will secure its victory.

As soon as the native begins to pull on his moorings, and to cause anxiety to the settler, he is handed over to well-meaning souls who in cultural congresses point out to him the specificity and wealth of Western values. But every time Western values are mentioned they produce in the native a sort of stiffening or muscular lockjaw. During the period of decolonization, the natives’s reason is appealed to. He is offered definite values, he is told frequently that decolonization need not mean regression, and that he must put his trust in qualities which are welltried, solid, and highly esteemed.

But it so happens that when the native hears a speech about Western culture he pulls out his knife–or at least he makes sure it is within reach. The violence with which the supremacy of white values is affirmed and the aggressiveness which has permeated the victory of these values over the ways of life and of thought of the native mean that, in revenge, the native laughs in mockery when Western values are mentioned in front of him. In the colonial context the settler only ends his work of breaking in the native when the latter admits loudly and intelligibly the supremacy of the white man’s values. In the period of decolonization, the colonized masses mock at these very values, insult them, and vomit them up.

This phenomenon is ordinarily masked because, during the period of decolonization, certain colonized intellectuals have begun a dialogue with the bourgeoisie of the colonialist country. During this phase, the indigenous population is discerned only as an indistinct mass. The few native personalities whom the colonialist bourgeois have come to know here and there have not sufficient influence on that immediate discernment to give rise to nuances. On the other hand, during the period of liberation, the colonialist bourgeoisie looks feverishly for contacts with the elite and it is with these elite that the familiar dialogue concerning values is carried on.

The colonialist bourgeoisie, when it realizes that it is impossible for it to maintain its domination over the colonial countries, decides to carry out a rearguard action with regard to culture, values, techniques, and so on. Now what we must never forget is that the immense majority of colonized peoples is oblivious to these problems. For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity. But this dignity has nothing to do with the dignity of the human individual: for that human individual has never heard tell of it. All that the native has seen in his country is that they can freely arrest him, beat him, starve him: and no professor of ethics, no priest has ever come to be beaten in his place, nor to share their bread with him.

As far as the native is concerned, morality is very concrete; it is to silence the settler’s defiance, to break his flaunting violence–in a word, to put him out of the picture. The wellknown principle that all men are equal will be illustrated in the colonies from the moment that the native claims that he is the equal of the settler. One step more, and he is ready to fight to be more than the settler. In fact, he has already decided to eject him and to take his place; as we see it, it is a whole material and moral universe which is breaking up.

The intellectual who for his part has followed the colonialist with regard to the universal abstract will fight in order that the settler and the native may live together in peace in a new world. But the thing he does not see, precisely because he is permeated by colonialism and all its ways of thinking, is that the settler, from the moment that the colonial context disappears, has no longer any interest in remaining or in co-existing. It is not by chance that, even before any negotiation between the Algerian and French governments has taken place, the European minority which calls itself ‘liberal’ has already made its position clear: it demands nothing more nor less than twofold citizenship. By setting themselves apart in an abstract manner, the liberals try to force the settler into taking a very concrete jump into the unknown. Let us admit it, the settler knows perfectly well that no phraseology can be a substitute for reality.

Thus the native discovers that his life, his breath, his beating heart are the same as those of the settler. He finds out that the settler’s skin is not of any more value than a native’s skin; and it must be said that this discovery shakes the world in a very necessary manner. All the new, revolutionary assurance of the native stems from it. For if, in fact, my life is worth as much as the settler’s, his glance no longer shrivels me up nor freezes me, and his voice no longer turns me into stone. I am no longer on tenterhooks in his presence; in fact, I don’t give a damn for him. Not only does his presence no longer trouble me, but I am already preparing such efficient ambushes for him that soon there will be no way out but that of flight.

We have said that the colonial context is characterized by the dichotomy which it imposes upon the whole people. Decolonization unifies that people by the radical decision to remove from it its heterogeneity, and by unifying it on a national, sometimes a racial, basis. We know the fierce words of the Senegalese patriots, referring to the maneuvers of their president, Senghor: ‘We have demanded that the higher posts should be given to Africans; and now Senghor is Africanizing the Europeans.’ That is to say that the native can see clearly and immediately if decolonization has come to pass or not, for his minimum demands are simply that the last shall be first.

But the native intellectual brings variants to this petition, and, in fact, he seems to have good reasons: higher civil servants, technicians, specialists–all seem to be needed. Now, the ordinary native interprets these unfair promotions as so many acts of sabotage, and he is often heard to declare: ‘It wasn’t worth while, then, our becoming independent…’

In the colonial countries where a real struggle for freedom has taken place, where the blood of the people has flowed and where the length of the period of armed warfare has favored the backward surge of intellectuals toward bases grounded in the people, we can observe a genuine eradication of the superstructure built by these intellectuals from the bourgeois colonialist environment. The colonialist bourgeoisie, in its narcissistic dialogue, expounded by the members of its universities, had in fact deeply implanted in the minds of the colonized intellectual that the essential qualities remain eternal in spite of all the blunders men may make: the essential qualities of the West, of course.

The native intellectual accepted the cogency of these ideas, and deep down in his brain you could always find a vigilant sentinel ready to defend the Greco-Latin pedestal. Now it so happens that during the struggle for liberation, at the moment that the native intellectual comes into touch again with his people, this artificial sentinel is turned into dust. All the Mediterranean values–the triumph of the human individual, of clarity, and of beauty–become lifeless, colorless knickknacks. All those speeches seem like collections of dead words; those values which seemed to uplift the soul are revealed as worthless, simply because they have nothing to do with the concrete conflict in which the people is engaged.

Individualism is the first to disappear. The native intellectual had learnt from his masters that the individual ought to express himself fully. The colonialist bourgeoisie had hammered into the native’s mind the idea of a society of individuals where each person shuts himself up in his own subjectivity, and whose only wealth is individual thought. Now the native who has the opportunity to return to the people during the struggle for freedom will discover the falseness of this theory. The very forms of organization of the struggle will suggest to him a different vocabulary. Brother, sister, friend–these are words outlawed by the colonialist bourgeoisie, because for them my brother is my purse, my friend is part of my scheme for getting on.

The native intellectual takes part, in a sort of auto-da-fé, in the destruction of all his idols: egoism, recrimination that springs from pride, and the childish stupidity of those who always want to have the last word. Such a colonized intellectual, dusted over by colonial culture, will in the same way discover the substance of village assemblies, the cohesion of people’s committees, and the extraordinary fruitfulness of local meetings and groupments. Henceforward, the interests of one will be the interests of all, for in concrete fact everyone will be discovered by the troops, everyone will be massacred–or everyone will be saved. The motto ‘look out for yourself,’ the atheist’s method of salvation, is in this context forbidden.

Self-criticism has been much talked about of late, but few people realize that it is an African institution. Whether in the djemaas of northern Africa or in the meetings of western Africa, tradition demands that the quarrels which occur in a village should be settled in public. It is communal self-criticism, of course, and with a note of humor, because everybody is relaxed, and because in the last resort we all want the same things. But the more the intellectual imbibes the atmosphere of the people, the more completely he abandons the habits of calculation, of unwonted silence, of mental reservations, and shakes off the spirit of concealment. And it is true that already at that level we can say that the community triumphs, and that it spreads its own light and its own reason.

But it so happens sometimes that decolonization occurs in areas which have not been sufficiently shaken by the struggle for liberation, and there may be found those same know-all, smart, wily intellectuals. We find intact in them the manners and forms of thought picked up during their association with the colonialist bourgeoisie. Spoilt children of yesterday’s colonialism and of today’s national governments, they organize the loot of whatever national resources exist. Without pity, they use today’s national distress as a means of getting on through scheming and legal robbery, by import-export combines, limited liability companies, gambling on the stock exchange, or unfair promotion. They are insistent in their demands for the nationalization of commerce, that is to say the reservation of markets and advantageous bargains for nationals only. As far as doctrine is concerned, they proclaim the pressing necessity of nationalizing the robbery of the nation. In this arid phase of national life, the so-called period of austerity, the success of their depredations is swift to call forth the violence and anger of the people. For this same people, poverty-stricken yet independent, comes very quickly to possess a social conscience in the African and international context of today; and this the petty individualists will quickly learn.

In order to assimilate and to experience the oppressor’s culture, the native has had to leave certain of his intellectual possessions in pawn. These pledges include his adoption of the forms of thought of the colonialist bourgeoisie. This is very noticeable in the inaptitude of the native intellectual to carry on a two-sided discussion; for he cannot eliminate himself when confronted with an object or an idea. On the other hand, when once he begins to militate among the people he is struck with wonder and amazement; he is literally disarmed by their good faith and honesty. The danger that will haunt him continually is that of becoming the uncritical mouthpiece of the masses; he becomes a kind of yes-man who nods assent at every word coming from the people, which he interprets as considered judgments. Now, the fellah, the unemployed man, the starving native do not lay a claim to the truth; they do not say that they represent the truth, for they are the truth.

Objectively, the intellectual behaves in this phase like a common opportunist. In fact he has not stopped maneuvering. There is never any question of his being either rejected or welcomed by the people. What they ask is simply that all resources should be pooled. The inclusion of the native intellectual in the upward surge of the masses will in this case be differentiated by a curious cult of detail. That is not to say that the people are hostile to analysis; on the contrary, they like having things explained to them, they are glad to understand a line of argument and they like to see where they are going. But at the beginning of his association with the people the native intellectual over-stresses details and thereby comes to forget that the defeat of colonialism is the real object of the struggle.

Carried away by the multitudinous aspects of the fight, he tends to concentrate on local tasks, performed with enthusiasm but almost always too solemnly. He fails to see the whole of the movement all the time. He introduces the idea of special disciplines, of specialized functions, of departments within the terrible stone crusher, the fierce mixing machine which a popular revolution is. He is occupied in action on a particular front, and it so happens that he loses sight of the unity of the movement. Thus, if a local defeat is inflicted, he may well be drawn into doubt, and from thence to despair. The people, on the other hand, take their stand from the start on the broad and inclusive positions of bread and the land: how can we obtain the land, and bread to eat? And this obstinate point of view of the masses, which may seem shrunken and limited, is in the end the most worthwhile and the most efficient mode of procedure.”

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art of resistance

The Book To Read: Anti-Arab Racism in the USA.

Steven Salaita’s book Anti-Arab Racism in the USA: Where It Comes from and What it Means for Politics Today was published nine years ago and he has had his share of struggles over the last couple of years, but I think this book is worth mentioning over and over again.

41eA3gsZoFL

In the opening chapter of the book, Salaita reflects on his childhood days (in the USA), writing:

Things weren’t much better at school. I was sensitive about my brown skin as early as I can remember because it seemed to inspire fascination among other students, who, as they became more inculcated into American exceptionalism, gradually turned the fascination into scorn. Since my mother, a Nicaraguan of Palestinian origin, taught Spanish at the local middle and high schools, I was treated to continual insults about the Rio Grande, border jumping, refried beans, and laziness. The more knowledgeable students taunted me about riding camels, fucking goats, and bombing the school. By the time I reached high school I quit trying to fight back; the foreign kid never wins crack fights in American schools.

I can’t remember a single instance, from kindergarten to twelfth grade, when a teacher intervened to stop others from insulting me. In fact, at times it was teachers who articulated racism with a cruelty unsurpassed by students. A first-grade teacher once reffered to the warag dawali (grape leaves) my mother had packed me as ‘little pieces of doo-doo’ in front of a crowd of a laughing children. Another teacher once snarled, ‘Don’t ever do that again, you damn foreigner.’ Other examples are less explicit: being sent to the principal’s office an extraordinary amount of times; being suspended for actions that resulted in no punishment for others; being made into the token example of everything ‘foreign’ or ‘international’.

Since all kinds of racism are deeply present in the American society, it is hard to delineate the existence of an anti-Arab racism, because it is often ‘in the mix’ with all the other racisms (like in the childhood examples Salaita gives). However, Salaita links the anti-Arab racism and its special features directly to the moment when the American capitalist system came into contact with the resources of the Arab World. He examines the pre and post 9/11 experiences of anti-Arab racism in the USA with the broader historical patterns of racism in the USA.

Since 9/11, Salaita points out, anti-Arab racism is America’s elephant in the living room. It is very much connected to Islamophobia. In general, there seems to be a great dislike towards everything labeled as Arab, Muslim, Islam. But it doesn’t stop there. On this note, Salaita writes:

Finally, it is necessary to determine against whom Islamophobia is directed. The most immediate answer, of course, is Muslims, but Islamophobia, if we strictly examine its prejudicial functions, appears at times to be directed at non-Muslims such as Arab Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, or even Hispanics – i.e., anybody perceived to be a Muslim, which indicates that Islamophobia doesn’t actually arise from the subject but squarely implicates the purveyor.

A part of the book is also dedicated to the notion of Arab violence. Salaita writes:

My point is a simple one, and I say it with as much clarity as possible: in discussing Arab violence, you either promulgate the assumption that Arabs are irrationally violent, or you simultaneously examine the context in which that violence arises. There is no other option intellectually: you are either a thoroughgoing racist or you take your responsibilities as a citizen and commentator seriously.”

Salaita does a great job connecting his personal stories with various surveys and anaysis of anti-Arab racism, making this an easy and enjoyable read (Salaita, luckily, doesn’t have that off-putting need to show off the language of academia). This is a book one can relate to, but still makes you wonder and question yourself , your thoughts, your society (that’s the part that stirs you up).

Read it.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

A Tale of Love and Darkness

Afghanistan, Were God Only Comes to Weep

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

My Happiness Bears No Relation To Happiness

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Nekategorizirano

Arundhati Roy: The New American Century.

This article appeared in the February 9, 2004 edition of The Nation. It was adapted from Arundhati Roy’s speech to the opening plenary of the World Social Forum in Mumbai.

Arundhati-Roy/Arundhati Roy, photo © Dinesh Khanna/

In January 2003 thousands of us from across the world gathered in Porto Alegre in Brazil and declared–reiterated–that ‘Another World Is Possible.’ A few thousand miles north, in Washington, George W. Bush and his aides were thinking the same thing.

Our project was the World Social Forum. Theirs–to further what many call the Project for the New American Century.

In the great cities of Europe and America, where a few years ago these things would only have been whispered, now people are openly talking about the good side of imperialism and the need for a strong empire to police an unruly world. The new missionaries want order at the cost of justice. Discipline at the cost of dignity. And ascendancy at any price. Occasionally some of us are invited to ‘debate’ the issue on ‘neutral’ platforms provided by the corporate media. Debating imperialism is a bit like debating the pros and cons of rape. What can we say? That we really miss it?

In any case, New Imperialism is already upon us. It’s a remodeled, streamlined version of what we once knew. For the first time in history, a single empire with an arsenal of weapons that could obliterate the world in an afternoon has complete, unipolar, economic and military hegemony. It uses different weapons to break open different markets. There isn’t a country on God’s earth that is not caught in the cross-hairs of the American cruise missile and the IMF checkbook. Argentina’s the model if you want to be the poster boy of neoliberal capitalism, Iraq if you’re the black sheep. Poor countries that are geopolitically of strategic value to Empire, or have a ‘market’ of any size, or infrastructure that can be privatized, or, God forbid, natural resources of value–oil, gold, diamonds, cobalt, coal–must do as they’re told or become military targets. Those with the greatest reserves of natural wealth are most at risk. Unless they surrender their resources willingly to the corporate machine, civil unrest will be fomented or war will be waged.

In this new age of empire, when nothing is as it appears to be, executives of concerned companies are allowed to influence foreign policy decisions. The Center for Public Integrity in Washington found that at least nine out of the thirty members of the Bush Administration’s Defense Policy Board were connected to companies that were awarded military contracts for $76 billion between 2001 and 2002. George Shultz, former Secretary of State, was chairman of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. He is also on the board of directors of the Bechtel Group. When asked about a conflict of interest in the case of war in Iraq he said, ‘I don’t know that Bechtel would particularly benefit from it. But if there’s work to be done, Bechtel is the type of company that could do it. But nobody looks at it as something you benefit from.’ In April 2003, Bechtel signed a $680 million contract for reconstruction.

This brutal blueprint has been used over and over again across Latin America, in Africa and in Central and Southeast Asia. It has cost millions of lives. It goes without saying that every war Empire wages becomes a Just War. This, in large part, is due to the role of the corporate media. It’s important to understand that the corporate media don’t just support the neoliberal project. They are the neoliberal project. This is not a moral position they have chosen to take; it’s structural. It’s intrinsic to the economics of how the mass media work.

Most nations have adequately hideous family secrets. So it isn’t often necessary for the media to lie. It’s all in the editing–what’s emphasized and what’s ignored. Say, for example, India was chosen as the target for a righteous war. The fact that about 80,000 people have been killed in Kashmir since 1989, most of them Muslim, most of them by Indian security forces (making the average death toll about 6,000 a year); the fact that in February and March of 2002 more than 2,000 Muslims were murdered on the streets of Gujarat, that women were gang-raped and children were burned alive and 150,000 driven from their homes while the police and administration watched and sometimes actively participated; the fact that no one has been punished for these crimes and the government that oversaw them was re-elected…all of this would make perfect headlines in international newspapers in the run-up to war.

Next thing we know, our cities will be leveled by cruise missiles, our villages fenced in with razor wire, US soldiers will patrol our streets, and Narendra Modi, Pravin Togadia or any of our popular bigots will, like Saddam Hussein, be in US custody having their hair checked for lice and the fillings in their teeth examined on prime-time TV.

But as long as our ‘markets’ are open, as long as corporations like Enron, Bechtel, Halliburton and Arthur Andersen are given a free hand to take over our infrastructure and take away our jobs, our ‘democratically elected’ leaders can fearlessly blur the lines between democracy, majoritarianism and fascism.

Our government’s craven willingness to abandon India’s proud tradition of being non-aligned, its rush to fight its way to the head of the queue of the Completely Aligned (the fashionable phrase is ‘natural ally’–India, Israel and the United States are ‘natural allies’), has given it the leg room to turn into a repressive regime without compromising its legitimacy.

A government’s victims are not only those it kills and imprisons. Those who are displaced and dispossessed and sentenced to a lifetime of starvation and deprivation must count among them too. Millions of people have been dispossessed by ‘development’ projects. In the past fifty-five years, big dams alone have displaced between 33 million and 55 million in India. They have no recourse to justice. In the past two years there have been a series of incidents in which police have opened fire on peaceful protesters, most of them Adivasi and Dalit. When it comes to the poor, and in particular Dalit and Adivasi communities, they get killed for encroaching on forest land, and killed when they’re trying to protect forest land from encroachments–by dams, mines, steel plants and other ‘development’ projects. In almost every instance in which the police opened fire, the government’s strategy has been to say the firing was provoked by an act of violence. Those who have been fired upon are immediately called militants.

Across the country, thousands of innocent people, including minors, have been arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and are being held in jail indefinitely and without trial. In the era of the War against Terror, poverty is being slyly conflated with terrorism. In the era of corporate globalization, poverty is a crime. Protesting against further impoverishment is terrorism. And now our Supreme Court says that going on strike is a crime. Criticizing the court is a crime too, of course. They’re sealing the exits.

Like Old Imperialism, New Imperialism relies for its success on a network of agents–corrupt local elites who service Empire. We all know the sordid story of Enron in India. The then-Maharashtra government signed a power purchase agreement that gave Enron profits that amounted to 60 percent of India’s entire rural development budget. A single American company was guaranteed a profit equivalent to funds for infrastructural development for about 500 million people!

Unlike in the old days, the New Imperialist doesn’t need to trudge around the tropics risking malaria or diarrhea or early death. New Imperialism can be conducted on e-mail. The vulgar, hands-on racism of Old Imperialism is outdated. The cornerstone of New Imperialism is New Racism.

The best allegory for New Racism is the tradition of ‘turkey pardoning’ in the United States. Every year since 1947, the National Turkey Federation has presented the US President with a turkey for Thanksgiving. Every year, in a show of ceremonial magnanimity, the President spares that particular bird (and eats another one). After receiving the presidential pardon, the Chosen One is sent to Frying Pan Park in Virginia to live out its natural life. The rest of the 50 million turkeys raised for Thanksgiving are slaughtered and eaten on Thanksgiving Day. ConAgra Foods, the company that has won the Presidential Turkey contract, says it trains the lucky birds to be sociable, to interact with dignitaries, school children and the press. (Soon they’ll even speak English!)

That’s how New Racism in the corporate era works. A few carefully bred turkeys–the local elites of various countries, a community of wealthy immigrants, investment bankers, the occasional Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice, some singers, some writers (like myself)–are given absolution and a pass to Frying Pan Park. The remaining millions lose their jobs, are evicted from their homes, have their water and electricity connections cut, and die of AIDS. Basically they’re for the pot. But the Fortunate Fowls in Frying Pan Park are doing fine. Some of them even work for the IMF and the WTO–so who can accuse those organizations of being antiturkey? Some serve as board members on the Turkey Choosing Committee–so who can say that turkeys are against Thanksgiving? They participate in it! Who can say the poor are anti-corporate globalization? There’s a stampede to get into Frying Pan Park. So what if most perish on the way?

As part of the project of New Racism we also have New Genocide. New Genocide in this new era of economic interdependence can be facilitated by economic sanctions. New Genocide means creating conditions that lead to mass death without actually going out and killing people. Denis Halliday, who was the UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq between 1997 and 1998 (after which he resigned in disgust), used the term genocide to describe the sanctions in Iraq. In Iraq the sanctions outdid Saddam Hussein’s best efforts by claiming more than half a million children’s lives.

In the new era, apartheid as formal policy is antiquated and unnecessary. International instruments of trade and finance oversee a complex system of multilateral trade laws and financial agreements that keep the poor in their bantustans anyway. Its whole purpose is to institutionalize inequity. Why else would it be that the US taxes a garment made by a Bangladeshi manufacturer twenty times more than a garment made in Britain? Why else would it be that countries that grow cocoa beans, like the Ivory Coast and Ghana, are taxed out of the market if they try to turn it into chocolate? Why else would it be that countries that grow 90 percent of the world’s cocoa beans produce only 5 percent of the world’s chocolate? Why else would it be that rich countries that spend over a billion dollars a day on subsidies to farmers demand that poor countries like India withdraw all agricultural subsidies, including subsidized electricity? Why else would it be that after having been plundered by colonizing regimes for more than half a century, former colonies are steeped in debt to those same regimes and repay them some $382 billion a year?

For all these reasons, the derailing of trade agreements at Cancún was crucial for us. Though our governments try to take the credit, we know that it was the result of years of struggle by many millions of people in many, many countries. What Cancún taught us is that in order to inflict real damage and force radical change, it is vital for local resistance movements to make international alliances. From Cancún we learned the importance of globalizing resistance.

No individual nation can stand up to the project of corporate globalization on its own. Time and again we have seen that when it comes to the neoliberal project, the heroes of our times are suddenly diminished. Extraordinary, charismatic men, giants in the opposition, when they seize power and become heads of state, are rendered powerless on the global stage. I’m thinking here of President Lula of Brazil. Lula was the hero of the World Social Forum last year. This year he’s busy implementing IMF guidelines, reducing pension benefits and purging radicals from the Workers’ Party. I’m thinking also of the former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. Within two years of taking office in 1994, his government genuflected with hardly a caveat to the Market God. It instituted a massive program of privatization and structural adjustment that has left millions of people homeless, jobless and without water and electricity.

Why does this happen? There’s little point in beating our breasts and feeling betrayed. Lula and Mandela are, by any reckoning, magnificent men. But the moment they cross the floor from the opposition into government they become hostage to a spectrum of threats–most malevolent among them the threat of capital flight, which can destroy any government overnight. To imagine that a leader’s personal charisma and a c.v. of struggle will dent the corporate cartel is to have no understanding of how capitalism works or, for that matter, how power works. Radical change cannot be negotiated by governments; it can only be enforced by people.

At the World Social Forum some of the best minds in the world come together to exchange ideas about what is happening around us. These conversations refine our vision of the kind of world we’re fighting for. It is a vital process that must not be undermined. However, if all our energies are diverted into this process at the cost of real political action, then the WSF, which has played such a crucial role in the movement for global justice, runs the risk of becoming an asset to our enemies. What we need to discuss urgently is strategies of resistance. We need to aim at real targets, wage real battles and inflict real damage. Gandhi’s salt march was not just political theater. When, in a simple act of defiance, thousands of Indians marched to the sea and made their own salt, they broke the salt tax laws. It was a direct strike at the economic underpinning of the British Empire. It was real. While our movement has won some important victories, we must not allow nonviolent resistance to atrophy into ineffectual, feel-good, political theater. It is a very precious weapon that must be constantly honed and reimagined. It cannot be allowed to become a mere spectacle, a photo opportunity for the media.

It was wonderful that on February 15 last year, in a spectacular display of public morality, 10 million people on five continents marched against the war on Iraq. It was wonderful, but it was not enough. February 15 was a weekend. Nobody had to so much as miss a day of work. Holiday protests don’t stop wars. George Bush knows that. The confidence with which he disregarded overwhelming public opinion should be a lesson to us all. Bush believes that Iraq can be occupied and colonized as Afghanistan has been, as Tibet has been, as Chechnya is being, as East Timor once was and Palestine still is. He thinks that all he has to do is hunker down and wait until a crisis-driven media, having picked this crisis to the bone, drops it and moves on. Soon the carcass will slip off the bestseller charts, and all of us outraged folks will lose interest. Or so he hopes.

This movement of ours needs a major, global victory. It’s not good enough to be right. Sometimes, if only in order to test our resolve, it’s important to win something. In order to win something, we need to agree on something. That something does not need to be an overarching preordained ideology into which we force-fit our delightfully factious, argumentative selves. It does not need to be an unquestioning allegiance to one or another form of resistance to the exclusion of everything else. It could be a minimum agenda.

If all of us are indeed against imperialism and against the project of neoliberalism, then let’s turn our gaze on Iraq. Iraq is the inevitable culmination of both. Plenty of antiwar activists have retreated in confusion since the capture of Saddam Hussein. Isn’t the world better off without Saddam Hussein? they ask timidly.

Let’s look this thing in the eye once and for all. To applaud the US Army’s capture of Saddam Hussein, and therefore in retrospect justify its invasion and occupation of Iraq, is like deifying Jack the Ripper for disemboweling the Boston Strangler. And that after a quarter-century partnership in which the Ripping and Strangling was a joint enterprise. It’s an in-house quarrel. They’re business partners who fell out over a dirty deal. Jack’s the CEO.

So if we are against imperialism, shall we agree that we are against the US occupation and that we believe the United States must withdraw from Iraq and pay reparations to the Iraqi people for the damage that the war has inflicted?

How do we begin to mount our resistance? Let’s start with something really small. The issue is not about supporting the resistance in Iraq against the occupation or discussing who exactly constitutes the resistance. (Are they old killer Baathists, are they Islamic fundamentalists?)

We have to become the global resistance to the occupation.

Our resistance has to begin with a refusal to accept the legitimacy of the US occupation of Iraq. It means acting to make it materially impossible for Empire to achieve its aims. It means soldiers should refuse to fight, reservists should refuse to serve, workers should refuse to load ships and aircraft with weapons. It certainly means that in countries like India and Pakistan we must block the US government’s plans to have Indian and Pakistani soldiers sent to Iraq to clean up after them.

I suggest we choose by some means two of the major corporations that are profiting from the destruction of Iraq. We could then list every project they are involved in. We could locate their offices in every city and every country across the world. We could go after them. We could shut them down. It’s a question of bringing our collective wisdom and experience of past struggles to bear on a single target. It’s a question of the desire to win.

The Project for the New American Century seeks to perpetuate inequity and establish American hegemony at any price, even if it’s apocalyptic. The World Social Forum demands justice and survival.

For these reasons, we must consider ourselves at war.

• • •

For more Arundhati Roy wisdom, see:

Arundhati Roy: There’s A Lot of Money in Poverty

Arundhati Roy: The President Took The Salute

Arundhati Roy: Feminism & Foundations, Burkas & Botox

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art of resistance

On Charlie Hebdo: No Man Is An Island.

I believe there is not a person on the internet this week who hasn’t heard about the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, or seen a hashtag JeSuisCharlie. Or, a day later, after some of the media reported about the dead cop, Ahmed, a new one  – JeSuisAhmed (although that was/is  less popular).

jesuisahmed

Last couple of days have been hectic in the social media world. People on facebook changed their profile pictures, cover photos, they created support groups, they raged, they tagged, on twitter they tweeted and retweeted like crazy, they used their hashtags vigorously…  I think way bigger effort went to showing support and expressing anger instantly than to pausing and understanding the event and the ‘big picture’. I am sure it did, for this is not a first time of such reactions, after all – we do live in a world of superficial social media (re)actions, actions that are sort of an aesthetic undertaking, a virtual creation born out of need to ‘participate’ which is more of a need to show others you’re participating, you have an opinion, you are up to date. To me, it often seems so repetitive, impersonal and just – fake.

So, yes, everyone had the need to say something, to comment. There were those who found this as a great opportunity to mask their own racisms and diverse phobias and aim it at muslim radicals, and denouncing Islam in general. It comes as no surprise that Bill Maher used this chance to slam Islam again. He said millions of Muslims are supporting the  terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, although he offered no statistical data to prove his claims (as usual).

He did not stop to think, like Joe Sacco did, saying: “But perhaps when we tire of holding up our middle finger we can try to think about why the world is the way it is. And what it is about Muslims in this time and place that makes them unable to laugh off a mere image.”

Sacco, a great cartoonist and journalist, also asked himself about the nature and purpose of satire in this time and place: “In fact, when we draw a line, we are often crossing one too, because lines on paper are a weapon and satire is meant to cut to the bone. But whose bone? What exactly is the target? And WHY?”

Capture/from Joe Sacco – On Satire, via Guardian/

Yes, free speech is important, always. It didn’t become important after this attack (attack from the outside), it is something extremely valued in the West for a long time, atleast that’s the impression we get… But is it actually, and do we indeed act (both governments and the public) like it is?

Teju Cole writes about it in the New Yorker, saying: “Western societies are not, even now, the paradise of skepticism and rationalism that they believe themselves to be. The West is a variegated space, in which both freedom of thought and tightly regulated speech exist, and in which disavowals of deadly violence happen at the same time as clandestine torture. But, at moments when Western societies consider themselves under attack, the discourse is quickly dominated by an ahistorical fantasy of long-suffering serenity and fortitude in the face of provocation. Yet European and American history are so strongly marked by efforts to control speech that the persecution of rebellious thought must be considered among the foundational buttresses of these societies. Witch burnings, heresy trials, and the untiring work of the Inquisition shaped Europe, and these ideas extended into American history as well and took on American modes, from the breaking of slaves to the censuring of critics of Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

He continues: “Rather than posit that the Paris attacks are the moment of crisis in free speech—as so many commentators have done—it is necessary to understand that free speech and other expressions of liberté are already in crisis in Western societies; the crisis was not precipitated by three deranged gunmen. The U.S., for example, has consolidated its traditional monopoly on extreme violence, and, in the era of big data, has also hoarded information about its deployment of that violence. There are harsh consequences for those who interrogate this monopoly. The only person in prison for the C.I.A.’s abominable torture regime is John Kiriakou, the whistle-blower. Edward Snowden is a hunted man for divulging information about mass surveillance. Chelsea Manning is serving a thirty-five-year sentence for her role in WikiLeaks. They, too, are blasphemers, but they have not been universally valorized, as have the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo.”

So yes, when it comes to free speach and the attacks from the inside – we are not always that loud. And we – our governments and mainstream media – tend to punish those who fight for free speach, free thinking and free information. In relation to this and reflecting on Mannings and Snowdens of the world, this attack is not really about free speech, and it is not about religion (although it is reported with emphasis on those two, so, in a way – it is being made about it and that is why we should reflect on those aspects too). This attack is about war and terrorism, and like all wars and terrorism in general – it is about those who profit making wars and installing terrror. Terrorism and religion should never be regarded as the same thing. Terrorism is not born out of religion. It is mainly born out of oppression, poverty, despair, but also – greed and will for power and resources.

In his latest piece for The Independent, Robert Fisk writes about Charlie Hebdo attackers:

“Algeria. Long before the identity of the murder suspects was revealed by the French police – even before I heard the names of Cherif and Said Kouachi – I muttered the word ‘Algeria’ to myself. As soon as I heard the names and saw the faces, I said the word ‘Algeria’ again. And then the French police said the two men were of ‘Algerian origin’. For Algeria remains the most painful wound within the body politic of the Republic – save, perhaps, for its continuing self-examination of Nazi occupation – and provides a fearful context for every act of Arab violence against France.(…)

paris/photo: Clichy-sous-Bois (Paris) is not served by any motorway or major road and no railway (not served by any station of the Paris Métro, RER, or suburban rail network) and therefore remains one of the most isolated of the inner suburbs of Paris (located only 15 kilometres from central Paris). Clichy-sous-Bois has a high unemployment rate and the vast majority of its population is made up of African heritage./

But there’s an important context that somehow got left out of the story this week, the ‘history corner’ that many Frenchmen as well as Algerians prefer to ignore: the bloody 1954-62 struggle of an entire people for freedom against a brutal imperial regime, a prolonged war which remains the foundational quarrel of Arabs and French to this day.

The desperate and permanent crisis in Algerian-French relations, like the refusal of a divorced couple to accept an agreed narrative of their sorrow, poisons the cohabitation of these two peoples in France. However Cherif and Said Kouachi excused their actions, they were born at a time when Algeria had been invisibly mutilated by 132 years of occupation. Perhaps five million of France’s six and a half million Muslims are Algerian. Most are poor, many regard themselves as second-class citizens in the land of equality.”

Like the film La Haine illustrated years ago, France does have a lot of minority issues, and is, in many aspects – a racist country.  Now, more than ever (with all  the media attention), it is time to finally talk about it, not to keep on sweeping it under the rug while at the same time waving the old Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité flag. Long gone are those days…

One of the things France and its people should discuss is the fact that even today fourteen African countries are obliged by France, trough a colonial pact, to put 85% of their foreign reserve into France central bank under French minister of Finance control. In 2014, Togo and about 13 other African countries still had to pay colonial debt to France. African leaders who refuse are killed or victim of coup. Those who obey are supported and rewarded by France with lavish lifestyle while their people endure extreme poverty, and desperation. Mawuna Remarque Koutonin also writes how under “Defence Agreements” attached to the Colonial Pact, France had the legal right to intervene militarily in the African countries, and also to station troops permanently in bases and military facilities in those countries, run entirely by the French.

French-military-bases-in-africa/French military bases in Africa, photo via SiliconAfrica/

The article ends with: “For historical comparison, France made Haiti to pay the modern equivalent of $21 billion from 1804 till 1947 (almost one century and half) for the losses caused to french slave traders by the abolition of slavery and the liberation of the Haitian slaves. African countries are paying the colonial tax only for the last 50 years, so I think one century of payment might be left!”

In March  2008, former French President Jacques Chirac said: “Without Africa, France will slide down into the rank of a third [world] power.” Well, atleast he admitted it. But what do people of Africa have from it? Maybe an illustration from the film Touki Bouki can help:

10153122_10203524588853948_1692857486_n/Touki Bouki snapshot/

Lastly, the attack in Paris is not the only horrible thing that happened this week (horrible in terms of media horrible scales). On the same day of Charlie Hebdo attack around 40 people died, and more than 60 were injured in a suicide attack in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. Two days ago, another massacre in Nigeria happened. Hundreds of bodies – too many to count – remain strewn in the bush in Nigeria from an Islamic extremist attack that Amnesty International described as the “deadliest massacre” in the history of Boko Haram (estimates are that around two thousand people have been killed). Most victims are children, women and elderly people who could not run fast enough when insurgents drove into Baga, firing rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles on town residents. Around 1.5 million people have been displaced by the violence so far, many of whom will not be able to vote in the polls under Nigeria’s current electoral laws.

There’s no epidemic of profile pictures changing and hashtagging for that. Our (western) focus is, as Teju Cole writes: “part of the consensus about mournable bodies, and it often keeps us from paying proper attention to other, ongoing, instances of horrific carnage around the world: abductions and killings in Mexico, hundreds of children (and more than a dozen journalists) killed in Gaza by Israel last year, internecine massacres in the Central African Republic, and so on. And even when we rightly condemn criminals who claim to act in the name of Islam, little of our grief is extended to the numerous Muslim victims of their attacks, whether in Yemen or Nigeria—in both of which there were deadly massacres this week—or in Saudi Arabia, where, among many violations of human rights, the punishment for journalists who “insult Islam” is flogging. We may not be able to attend to each outrage in every corner of the world, but we should at least pause to consider how it is that mainstream opinion so quickly decides that certain violent deaths are more meaningful, and more worthy of commemoration, than  others.”

As John Donne wrote: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls – it tolls for thee.”

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