art of resistance, Israel, Palestine

(Interview) Iris Zaki: Between Black & White.

women in sink/Women in Sink, photo courtesy of Iris Zaki/

Iris Zaki is an Israeli documentary filmmaker, living in London since 2009. She shot her first short documentary My Kosher Shifts (2011) at the hotel where she worked at the reception desk in order to pay her rent. In 2013 she commenced a practice-based PhD in documentary filmmaking.

Her latest documentary Women in Sink (2015) takes place at Fifi’s, beauty salon in Haifa, owned by a Christian Arab. The film is highly praised and currently showing on festivals around the world.

I’ve talked with Zaki about Women in Sink, her beginnings in filmmaking, reasons why she likes to keep the camera rolling while she works and chats with people she is filming, and the surprising ways which made her love the colour gray.

After several years of working in the Israeli music media industry, you moved to London and started a Masters degree course in documentary filmmaking. Why documentary filmmaking?

I was working for the Israeli music television, in an office, from 9 to 7. I was really bored and I realised that there is something I need to do in my life, that I need a change. I went to London for a holiday and really liked it so I decided to move there. I applied for studies and was accepted, but it wasn’t documentary filmmaking. However, my friend took the documentary filmmaking course and I went to some of the classes and really liked it, so I switched.

Working to pay the rent at the reception of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish hotel in North London, you decided to make your debut film, My Kosher Shifts. How was that experience like?

I love to talk so I was just talking with these people, and I had never before had any communication with ultra-orthodox Jewish people. I found myself talking with them so openly and they opened up to me, and I decided to make my final film about my conversations with them. I was very cautious when directing, I didn’t want to change the way it is.

I thought that bringing people to do camera and sound and all of that would ruin the atmosphere, the natural flow of things. So I just decided to leave the camera filming and communicate normaly. So, with that film, the technique of “abandoned camera” developed and I continue working that way.

The technique of “abandoned camera” functions very well in your films, and you mainly film in closed communities, communities you don’t know well. How does it work, tell me more about it?

I really like to work this way, it suits me. After finishing my masters, I decided to do a PhD and continue filming that way. I like to go into communities that I am not a part of, that is what is very interesting to me. I am not a great cinematographer or a director, and this techinque allows me to find my place in documentary filmmaking. If I am talented for something, then that is first and foremost my communication with people.

This technique allows me to capture this very sensitive and interesting interaction with the people, instead of staging something or doing interviews. I want to get the normal, everyday flow of conversation, that is my main interest.

iris zaki/Zaki and her abandoned camera/

You are from Haifa, usually portrayed as a model of co-existence between Arabs and Jews. Growing up, did you interact with Arabs/Palestinians/Muslims living in your neighbourhood? Was there segregation and was it obvious?

No, there was absolutely no interaction. The educational system separates children by their religion, so there was no possibility for interaction in school. In Haifa, segregation is actually very obvious in relation to the class – rich people live on the top of the mountain, and under it, around the sea, are the poor people, and mostly Arabs live downtown.

In Haifa the difference might be that there is more respect between people, more respect for otherness, even though it is not ideal. You can’t really look at it in a black or white perspective, it’s complex. The biggest issue is the social mobility – when an Arab wants to buy a house in a Jewish neighbourhood, there can be a problem. The same thing goes for jobs.

You ended up doing a film, Women in Sink, in a mixed hair salon where Arabs and Jews come to get their hair done. What were your thoughts when coming into that film, what did you want to find out?

I actually didn’t go there because it is a mixed hair salon, I didn’t want to talk to Jewish women, my aim was to talk to the Arab women. I wanted to find a place that will let me do this crazy thing. When I came to Haifa, I ended up at Fifi’s hair salon, and I really liked the people and the atmosphere of the place. The energy was great, and I didn’t think about anything else, I decided to film there.

But yes, in the beginning in only wanted to talk to Arab women, it was important to me as a Jewish girl from Haifa, to hear how they feel living in the city where I grew up and felt very welcomed. I wanted to know how different our experiences were.

/Fifi’s hair salon/

What happened and changed during the shooting of the film? How did you end up filming Jewish women too?

There were two things that happened at the same time. The first one is that I didn’t have a lot of Arab women that wanted to be filmed nor women who allowed themselves to be very political. Living in Israel, I think that everybody is political, but I think the issue here was that some of the women didn’t want to share it with me.

At the same time, when I started washing Jewish women’s hair and talking to them, they turned out to be very political, very opinionated. Also, I felt more comfortable to confront Jewish people than to confront Arab women. Jewish women felt more comfortable to criticize Israel, because when you are the priviliged one you can complain, but as a minority it is more complicated and that is what came to surface when I started filming.

Did Women in Sink surprise you? Have you expected more extreme positions from the women you talked to? What can we learn from that?

I think that a lot of documentary filmmakers, most of them really, go into filming with a certain agenda and then they find characters that fit their agenda. I put myself in places and just hang out with people, and I let the film develop in its own way. Of course, with Women in Sink, I did have my position and expectations from day one and I was very open about it. During the shooting, I learned a lesson, and I decided to let people say what the want to say.

What is surprising to many people, and it was also surprising to me, is that most of these opinions are very light, altough they are very different. There’s no extremes. A lot of filmmakers look for extremes, they want black and white, and the gray area is not interesting to them, it can even be disturbing to many. It’s the same with news and media. While making this film, I became really interested in the gray area, because that is where majority of the people fall into.

Were you afraid that, after watching your film, people would generalize and take it as a representation of the whole community?

I was worried and I am worried about that. Whenever I am doing Q&A, I say that it shouldn’t be taken that way, I already feel like a lawyer who worries about being sued. These are individual stories and they should be seen that way and that’s it. But yeah, I am still worried.

WOMEN IN SINK - Official/Women in Sink/

You live in London now. When you visit Israel, how do you feel, do you feel the changes in the atmosphere, how is the situation now? Would you like to go back and live in Israel?

I feel it is going in a very bad direction, I am very sad about it. When I finished Women in Sink I went back to London a little hopeful, but then there was the war in Gaza. The goverment now is so racist and the atmsophere is the one of creating fear.

I want to go back to Israel at some point, but as long as this goverment is in charge, as long as Netanyahu is in charge, I am not going back for sure. They don’t offer any solutions, they see war as the only solution. The word peace used to be something that every party included in their manifest, and now they don’t even mention it, it’s not even on the agenda.

To end this conversation on a more positive note – what are your plans for the future, what are you working on at the moment?

I am working on my next film for the PhD, this time I want to do it in a settlement. I already chose a settlement where I’ll be living for a month and filming the people. I don’t know anything about settlers, all I have is black and white stories about them, and I want to find out more. I am doing that this spring and we’ll see what happens.

• • •

//all photos courtesy of Iris Zaki//

Find out more about Women in Sink here.

This interview was also published in Croatian, on Libela.

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art of resistance, India

Arundhati Roy on Returning Her Award to India’s Top Literary Institution.

roy//photo © Stuart Freedman/In pictures/Corbis//

This was published in Jacobin Magazine.

“Although I do not believe that awards are a measure of the work we do, I would like to add the National Award for the Best Screenplay that I won in 1989 to the growing pile of returned awards. Also, I want to make it clear that I am not returning this award because I am ‘shocked’ by what is being called the ‘growing intolerance’ being fostered by the present government.

First of all, ‘intolerance’ is the wrong word to use for the lynching, shooting, burning, and mass murder of fellow human beings. Second, we had plenty of advance notice of what lay in store for us — so I cannot claim to be shocked by what has happened after this government was enthusiastically voted into office with an overwhelming majority*. Third, these horrific murders are only a symptom of a deeper malaise. Life is hell for the living too. Whole populations — millions of Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, and Christians — are being forced to live in terror, unsure of when and from where the assault will come.

Today we live in a country in which, when the thugs and apparatchiks of the New Order talk of ‘illegal slaughter’ they mean the imaginary cow that was killed — not the real man that was murdered. When they talk of taking ‘evidence for forensic examination’ from the scene of the crime, they mean the food in the fridge, not the body of the lynched man.

We say we have ‘progressed’ — but when Dalits are butchered and their children burned alive, which writer today can freely say, like Babasaheb Ambedkar once did, that ‘To the Untouchables, Hinduism is a veritable chamber of horrors,’ without getting attacked, lynched, shot, or jailed? Which writer can write what Saadat Hassan Manto wrote in his ‘Letter to Uncle Sam’?

It doesn’t matter whether we agree or disagree with what is being said. If we do not have the right to speak freely we will turn into a society that suffers from intellectual malnutrition, a nation of fools. Across the subcontinent it has become a race to the bottom — one that the New India has enthusiastically joined. Here too now, censorship has been outsourced to the mob.

I am very pleased to have found (from somewhere way back in my past) a National Award that I can return, because it allows me to be a part of a political movement initiated by writers, filmmakers, and academics in this country who have risen up against a kind of ideological viciousness and an assault on our collective IQ that will tear us apart and bury us very deep if we do not stand up to it now.

I believe what artists and intellectuals are doing right now is unprecedented and does not have a historical parallel. It is politics by other means. I am so proud to be part of it. And so ashamed of what is going on in this country today.

*For the record, I turned down the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2005 when the Congress was in power. So please spare me that old Congress vs BJP debate. It’s gone way beyond all that. Thanks.”

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art of resistance, Israeli - Palestinian conflict

The Shadow of the West by Edward Said.

This month (25th of September) marked twelve years since Edward Said died. Middle East Revised will continue publishing excerpts from Said’s books, interviews and films about Said and his work, as a way of paying tribute to him.

After publishing an excerpt from the book Culture and Resistance, Conversations with Edward Said, (Interviews by David Barsamian)here is a link to The Shadow of the West, written by Said, and directed by Geoff Dunlop.

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art of resistance, India

B.R. Ambedkar: Why Social Reform is Necessary for Economic Reform.

The following is an excerpt from B.R. Ambedkar’s classic Annihilation of Caste (written in 1936, but still very relevant today). Ambedkar wrote the Annihilation of Caste for the 1936 meeting of a group of liberal Hindu caste-reformers,  Jat-Pat Todak Mandal, in Lahore. After reviewing the speech, conference organizers revoked Ambedkar’s invitation. He then self-published 1,500 copies of the speech and it became a classic.

116035_double-check/B.R. Ambedkar, photo via Caravan magazine/

“Let me now turn to the Socialists. Can the Socialists ignore the problem arising out of the social order? The Socialists of India, following their fellows in Europe, are seeking to apply the economic interpretation of history to the facts of India. They propound that man is an economic creature, that his activities and aspirations are bound by economic facts, that property is the only source of power. They therefore preach that political and social reforms are but gigantic illusions, and that economic reform by equalization of property must have precedence over every other kind of reform. One may take issue with every one of these premises—on which rests the Socialists’ case for economic reform as having priority over every other kind of reform. One may contend that the economic motive is not the only motive by which man is actuated. That economic power is the only kind of power, no student of human society can accept.

That the social status of an individual by itself often becomes a source of power and authority, is made clear by the sway which the Mahatmas have held over the common man. Why do millionaires in India obey penniless Sadhus and Fakirs? Why do millions of paupers in India sell their trifling trinkets which constitute their only wealth, and go to Benares and Mecca? That religion is the source of power is illustrated by the history of India, where the priest holds a sway over the common man often greater than that of the magistrate, and where everything, even such things as strikes and elections, so easily takes a religious turn and can so easily be given a religious twist.

Take the case of the Plebians of Rome, as a further illustration of the power of religion over man. It throws great light on this point. The Plebians had fought for a share in the supreme executive under the Roman Republic, and had secured the appointment of a Plebian Consul elected by a separate electorate constituted by the Commitia Centuriata, which was an assembly of Plebians. They wanted a Consul of their own because they felt that the Patrician Consuls used to discriminate against the Plebians in carrying on the administration. They had apparently obtained a great gain, because under the Republican Constitution of Rome one Consul had the power of vetoing an act of the other Consul.

But did they in fact gain anything? The answer to this question must be in the negative. The Plebians never could get a Plebian Consul who could be said to be a strong man, and who could act independently of the Patrician Consul. In the ordinary course of things the Plebians should have got a strong Plebian Consul, in view of the fact that his election was to be by a separate electorate of Plebians. The question is, why did they fail in getting a strong Plebian to officiate as their Consul?

The answer to this question reveals the dominion which religion exercises over the minds of men. It was an accepted creed of the whole Roman populus that no official could enter upon the duties of his office unless the Oracle of Delphi declared that he was acceptable to the Goddess. The priests who were in charge of the temple of the Goddess of Delphi were all Patricians. Whenever therefore the Plebians elected a Consul who was known to be a strong party man and opposed to the Patricians—or ‘communal,’ to use the term that is current in India—the Oracle invariably declared that he was not acceptable to the Goddess. This is how the Plebians were cheated out of their rights.

One can thus attack the doctrine of the Economic Interpretation of History adopted by the Socialists of India. But I recognize that the economic interpretation of history is not necessary for the validity of the Socialist contention that equalization of property is the only real reform and that it must precede everything else. However, what I would like to ask the Socialists is this: Can you have economic reform without first bringing about a reform of the social order?

The Socialists of India do not seem to have considered this question. I do not wish to do them an injustice. I give below a quotation from a letter which a prominent Socialist wrote a few days ago to a friend of mine, in which he said, ‘I do not believe that we can build up a free society in India so long as there is a trace of this ill-treatment and suppression of one class by another. Believing as I do in a socialist ideal, inevitably I believe in perfect equality in the treatment of various classes and groups. I think that Socialism offers the only true remedy for this as well as other problems.’

Now the question that I would like to ask is: Is it enough for a Socialist to say, ‘I believe in perfect equality in the treatment of the various classes?’ To say that such a belief is enough is to disclose a complete lack of understanding of what is involved in Socialism. If Socialism is a practical programme and is not merely an ideal, distant and far off, the question for a Socialist is not whether he believes in equality. The question for him is whether he minds one class ill-treating and suppressing another class as a matter of system, as a matter of principle—and thus allowing tyranny and oppression to continue to divide one class from another.

Let me analyse the factors that are involved in the realization of Socialism, in order to explain fully my point. Now it is obvious that the economic reform contemplated by the Socialists cannot come about unless there is a revolution resulting in the seizure of power. That seizure of power must be by a proletariat. The first question I ask is: Will the proletariat of India combine to bring about this revolution? What will move men to such an action? It seems to me that, other things being equal, the only thing that will move one man to take such an action is the feeling that other men with whom he is acting are actuated by a feeling of equality and fraternity and—above all—of justice. Men will not join in a revolution for the equalization of property unless they know that after the revolution is achieved they will be treated equally, and that there will be no discrimination of caste and creed.

The assurance of a Socialist leading the revolution that he does not believe in Caste, I am sure will not suffice. The assurance must be the assurance proceeding from a much deeper foundation—namely, the mental attitude of the compatriots towards one another in their spirit of personal equality and fraternity. Can it be said that the proletariat of India, poor as it is, recognises no distinctions except that of the rich and the poor? Can it be said that the poor in India recognize no such distinctions of caste or creed, high or low? If the fact is that they do, what unity of front can be expected from such a proletariat in its action against the rich? How can there be a revolution if the proletariat cannot present a united front?

Suppose for the sake of argument that by some freak of fortune a revolution does take place and the Socialists come into power; will they not have to deal with the problems created by the particular social order prevalent in India? I can’t see how a Socialist State in India can function for a second without having to grapple with the problems created by the prejudices which make Indian people observe the distinctions of high and low, clean and unclean. If Socialists are not to be content with the mouthing of fine phrases, if the Socialists wish to make Socialism a definite reality, then they must recognize that the problem of social reform is fundamental, and that for them there is no escape from it.

That the social order prevalent in India is a matter which a Socialist must deal with; that unless he does so he cannot achieve his revolution; and that if he does achieve it as a result of good fortune, he will have to grapple with the social order if he wishes to realize his ideal—is a proposition which in my opinion is incontrovertible. He will be compelled to take account of Caste after the revolution, if he does not take account of it before the revolution.

This is only another way of saying that, turn in any direction you like, Caste is the monster that crosses your path. You cannot have political reform, you cannot have economic reform, unless you kill this monster.”

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art of resistance, movie/tv propaganda

West vs. Islam: Playing The Religion Card.

In the spring of 2009, Barack Obama gave his famous Cairo speech. One of his first sentences was:

We meet at a time of great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world, tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate. The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of coexistence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars. More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunites to many Muslims.“

He continues to talk about Islam during the speech, emphasizing the partnership of Islam and America,and the fight against negative stereotypes of Islam.

Now, the terms West vs. Islam or United States vs. Muslims are quite obvious – West is not defined by religion, but (Middle) East continues to be. It is true that the dominant religion in the West is practiced differently and is maybe less obviously present in everyday life (on a personal, not on an institutional level – let’s just say that the influence of the Catholic Church is not be underestimated) and you will probably not see Christians in New York or Sydney praying five times a day, but you will definitely see Muslims doing it in Amman or Sana’a, for example. But, there are so many issues with defining people by their religion primarily.

One of them is that those terms are extremely insulting to Muslims living in the West, people who have spent their lives in – let’s say – USA, and find it as their home, find American identity as an important part of who they are. Saying that we are in conflict with Muslims generally or have an issue with Muslims is problematic for there are 1.5 billions of Muslims in the world, and they belong to diverse communities, different countries, and many, many of them – live and belong to the Western world.

Jocelyne Cesari, Senior Research Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, an the Director of the Islam in the West Program at Harvard University writes how:

One major consequence of such a polarized mindset is to mask the sociological reality of Muslims. In fact, a striking gap exists between the image of Islam as it is constructed in binary public discourse and the multifaceted reality of Muslims across countries and localities. For example, the dominant assumption is that visible Islamic identities in the West are inversely correlated to their civic and political loyalties, while there is empirical evidence that contradicts such an assumption. My book – ‘Why the West Fears Islam – An Exploration of Muslims in Liberal Democracies’ – presents first-hand data from focus groups I organized in Paris, London, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Boston between 2007 and 2010. In this regard, it is the first systematic and comparative review of the existing knowledge about Muslim political behaviours and religious practices in western Europe and in the United States.

The major conclusion is that although Muslims are challenged by their secular environment, they do not experience the incompatibility so intensely debated by western politicians and Salafi preachers alike. Then why is Islam depicted as an obstacle in political discourse and the media? Taking up this intriguing gap, I have attempted to make sense of this disjuncture between what Muslims do and the political construct of the ‘Muslim problem’. During this exploration, liberalism and secularism have appeared as the two major idioms used to make sense of the Muslim presence.

The ‘Islamic Problem’ in Europe is a consequence of immigrant settlement that in the last two decades has been phrased in cultural and religious terms. The fact that Muslims stand at the core of three major social ‘problems’ – immigration; class and economic integration; ethnicity and multiculturalism – has increased the concern about Islamic religion, increasingly seen as the major reason for all problems. I show in my book that in the United States this culturalization of all political issues related to Muslims is more recent and primarily related to security concerns. Therefore, categories of ‘immigrant’ and ‘Muslim’ overlap in Western Europe, unlike in the United States where immigration debates centre on economic and social concerns such as wages, assimilation, and language. The outcome of these social shifts is visible in the apocalyptic turn of the public rhetoric on Islam in Europe. Extreme right political figures like Geert Wilders speak of ‘the lights going out over Europe’ or of ‘the sheer survival of the West’.“

She continues to say:

This ‘new integrationist’ discourse is widely shared across European countries and, interestingly, promoted by former left-wing activists. Gender equality and rejection of religious authority, which were primary left-wing topics of struggle in the 1960s have become in the present decade the legitimate markers of European identity. In these conditions, all groups and individuals are required to demonstrate conformity to these liberal values in order to become legitimate members of national communities. The ‘Moderate Muslims’ label serves this purpose. It creates a distinction that is supposedly not based on Islam as such but on the adherence of Muslims to liberal values.

Strikingly, feminist groups have become key actors of this discourse. Some feminist figures have been particularly vehement against group rights and especially against any Islamic principles that could undermine gender equality. Curiously, this feminist discourse silences the Muslim women that it purports to defend. As a consequence, Muslim women are transformed into subalterns in a way that is similar to the colonial and postcolonial vision of the Muslim subject.“

With their book Who Speaks for Islam? John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed have performed an invaluable service in understanding contemporary Islam and the disparate views of 1.5 billion Muslims.  Relying on the work of the Gallup organization to ascertain the views of Muslims across the world, Esposito and Mogahed have analyzed public opinion in the Islamic world on all of the most important issues of the day. Their analysis provides an excellent foundation for bridging the gaps between the West and the East, and is a great read for all of those who wish to understand this topic.

There are many reasons for us to do so. For example, a 2006 USA Today/Gallup poll found that substantial minorities of Americans admit to harboring at least some prejudice against Muslims and favoring heightened security measures for Muslims a way to help prevent terrorism. The same poll found that 44% of Americans saying that Muslim are too extreme in their religious beliefs.

What is extreme? Isn’t the killing of Dr. George Tiller, a 67-year-old abortion provider who was shot point blank in the forehead as he attended church services in Wichita, extreme? Tiller’s clinic was one of a handful in the USA that performed abortions after the 24th week of pregnancy. Tiller’s case is not an isolated one, and that is only one tiny example of the wrongdoings of extreme Christians. But Tiller’s murderer Shelley Shannon was not chosen as a representative model of Christians by the media, the same way we do not see Army of God banners and flags all over the place as an image depicting Christians.

Donald_Spitz_holds_Army_of_God_BannerDonald Spitz holds Army of God banner. /image via wikipedia/

And I think that is good, since those people and those acts do not represent the majority of Christians or the religion itself (this is not to say that we shouldn’t pay attention to them, but rather not to take them as a standard and representative for all).

Now, the other issue I find disturbing when it comes to West vs. Islam, is that it allows us (Western countries – our governments) to make the religion of Islam responsible for everything bad going on in the (Middle) East. It is a way of reducing people and issues to one thing – a way in which Islam serves as a cover-up of for all the complex realities, identities and historical events of the Middle East. It is extremely ignorant and extremely dangerous. But it is also perfect – since Western governments share a great deal of responsibility for the turmoils of the (Middle) East.

Of course, part of the blame for the religious name-calling lies on the shoulders of incapable Arab leaders who – knowing not how to lead their countries and provide competent solutions for their people and issues they are facing – every now and then talk about Islam like it is going to magically solve everything (but, then again –  Obama also finishes every speech with God bless America, and when we talk about America – we do not say Christians or Christianity).

I believe that the religion is what a person makes of it. All of the holy books – whether it is the Bible, Qur’an, Torah – can be interpreted in many ways. If you are a good person, you’ll find what’s good in it and live by it. If you’re a violent, embittered person, you’ll find in it an excuse to be violent in the name of religion. Like Reza Aslan says in the interview for the CNN: „Islam is just a religion and like any other religion in the world it depends on what you bring to it. If you are a violent person your Islam, your Judaism, your Christianity, your Hinduism is going to be violent.“

So – instead of all the talk about the Islam, we must talk about the legacy of colonialism which continues to make a profound impact on East-West relations today. We must talk about the current distribution of global power, once wielded by Europe and now by the United States, which fuels a sense of alienation, frustration, and mistrust in the Eastern world. To finish this post – let’s just go back to 1996 and Samuel Huntington’s implicit claim in his Clash of Civilizations that there is a collision between the fundamental values of Islamic and Western worlds and that “Islam has bloody borders” , a point of view that justifies the current global power imbalance to the detriment of non-Western cultures and societies. It is time to finally let go of the dirty games, lower passions and superficial explanations we are being fed with.

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