Iraq

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

dia-azz/art by Dia Azzawi/

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

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

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

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

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

ibc/photo: IBC/

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

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

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

See the full IBC report here.

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art of resistance, Lebanon

Nizar Qabbani | Beirut, The Mistress Of The World.

nizar

*Been in Beirut for a month now. This poem’s on my mind most of the time. One of the first days here I got lost searching for the sea (it’s hard to see, smell or hear the sea due to all of the building/s/ everywhere) and I finally found my way – stumbling upon a little street that took me straight to the coast.

It was the street of Nizar Qabbani. In this city of refuge that needs a refuge, Qabbani shows the way to the sea. I call it hope.

Beirut, The Mistress Of The World

Beirut, the Mistress of the World
We confess before the One God
That we were envious of you
That your beauty hurt us

We confess now
That we’ve maltreated and misunderstood you
And we had no mercy and didn’t excuse you
And we offered you a dagger in place of flowers!
We confess before the fair God
That we injured you, alas; we tired you
That we vexed you and made you cry
And we burdened you with our insurrections

Oh Beirut
The world without you won’t suffice us
We now realize your roots are deep inside us,
We now realize what offence we’ve perpetrated

Rise from under the rubble
Like a flower of Almond in April
Get over your sorrow
Since revolution grows in the wounds of grief
Rise in honor of the forests,
Rise in honor of the rivers
Rise in honor of humankind
Rise, Oh Beirut!

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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, Saudi Arabia, Yemen

Yemen | 2017 Humanitarian Needs Overview.

kayai so what/Then What, painting by Louay Kayali/

An estimated 18.8 million people in Yemen need some kind of humanitarian or protection assistance, including 10.3 million who are in acute need. Escalating conflict since March 2015 has created a vast protection crisis in which millions face risks to their safety and basic rights, and are struggling to survive.

Even before March 25, 2015, when the conflict in Yemen escalated, the country faced enormous levels of humanitarian need, with 15.9 million people requiring some kind of humanitarian or protection assistance in late 2014. These needs stemmed from years of poverty, under-development, environmental decline, intermittent conflict, and weak rule of law – including widespread violations of human rights.

The conduct of hostilities has been brutal. As of 25 October 2016, health facilities had reported almost 44,000 casualties (including nearly 7,100 deaths) – an average of 75 people killed or injured every day. These figures significantly undercount the true extent of casualties given diminished reporting capacity of health facilities after 19 months of war and many people’s inability to access healthcare at all.

Read the full report on Yemen here.

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art of resistance, Israeli - Palestinian conflict, Palestine

Ghassan Zaqtan | A Picture Of The House At Beit Jala.

laila-shawa-where-souls-dwell-v/Where souls dwell III © Laila Shawa/

A Picture Of The House At Beit Jala by Ghassan Zaqtan (translated by Fady Joudah)

He has to return to shut that window,
it isn’t entirely clear
whether this is what he must do,
things are no longer clear
since he lost them,
and it seems a hole somewhere within him
has opened up

Filling in the cracks has exhausted him
mending the fences
wiping the glass
cleaning the edges
and watching the dust that seems, since he lost them,
to lure his memories into hoax and ruse.
From here his childhood appears as if it were a trick!
Inspecting the doors has fully exhausted him
the window latches
the condition of the plants
and wiping the dust
that has not ceased flowing
into the rooms, on the beds, sheets, pots
and on the picture frames on the walls

Since he lost them he stays with friends
who become fewer
sleeps in their beds
that become narrower
while the dust gnaws at his memories “there”
. . . he must return to shut that window
the upper story window which he often forgets
at the end of the stairway that leads to the roof

Since he lost them
he aimlessly walks
and the day’s small
purposes are also no longer clear.

Ghassan Zaqtan is a Palestinian poet, born in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem. Zaqtan has lived in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and  Tunisia. His tenth poetry collection Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me was translated to English by Fady Joudah and awarded the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2013.

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art of resistance, Saudi Arabia, Yemen

(Interview) Judith Brown: Yemen Is A Mess & It’s Getting Worse.

24/photo © Josef Hoflehner/

The war in Yemen, with all of its tragedies, keeps on unravelling far from the media flashlights. In a recent horrific attack in Sana’a, when Saudi-led warplanes struck a funeral, more than 200 people were killed, and more than 500 were injured.

A day after the attack in Sana’a, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who easily forgets his own mistakes (from 1978 till today), called for an attack on the enemy – Saudi Arabia. On the same day, the White House issued a statement saying it had begun an “immediate review” of its support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen. It is hard to believe that there will be such a review, since this is not the first attack by Saudi Arabia, and it will probably not be the last one.

There have been numerous attacks – on schools, hospitals, markets – killing and injuring thousands of civillians. In August, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) withdrew their staff from six hospitals in northern Yemen after a coalition airstrike on a hospital in Hajjah killed 19 people. Countless attacks on health facilities and services all over Yemen, happened despite the fact that MSF has systematically shared the GPS coordinates of hospitals with the parties involved in the conflict.

In the past year, Human Rights Watch has documented 43 airstrikes, some of which may amount to war crimes, which have killed more than 670 civilians, as well as 15 attacks involving internationally banned cluster munitions.

The infrastructure in Yemen has been significantly devasted during the last couple of years, and humanitarian organisations have been sending warnings about the lack of immediate and unhindered access to people who urgently need food assistance. That fact, compounded by a shortage of funding, means that famine is a possibility for millions of people.

We’ve discussed Yemen with Judith Brown, activist and aid worker from United Kingdom, who started the page Yemen News Today, which brings daily news from Yemen in English. Brown worked with refugees in Yemen from 1998 until 2001 and has visited the country every year from 2001 until 2014. She is now seventy years old and retired, but has recently started postdoctoral research into the media coverage of the Yemen war.

You’ve started the page Yemen News Today, trying to bring daily news from Yemen to the wider audiences, in English. How did that idea come to you, was it due to the lack of news from Yemen in the mainstream media?

I began Yemen News Today out of desperation because there was no news of Yemen in the media. I also know that I have a big Yemeni following now. My motivation was to tell as many people in the West as I could about the suffering, with the aim of increasing awareness and political pressure.

You’ve also worked as a manager at Refugee Health Project in Yemen, until 2001. What are your experiences like – how did the situation with refugees change over the last couple of years?

I left the refugee health programme in 2001, and this programme was for international refugees. Although I understand that since the Saada wars the UN had taken some responsibility for the displaced people – something they are not doing now simply because of the lack of resources.

For a time after the start of the war all the international employees were moved out of Yemen and many of the local staff were not able to function because they too were displaced, especially in Aden where the biggest refugee programmes are. I think the UN refugee offices are functioning now in Aden and Sana’a, but I am not sure exactly what their responsibilities are.

85154702_yemen_humanitarian_crisis/photo: BBC, 2015/

In a recent interview with Status Hour, journalist Safa al Ahmad argues that there’s no longer a Yemen, that North and South are completely separate from each other. Would you agree with that?

The north and south are functioning as at least two separate parts for complex reasons. Firstly, Saudi Arabia and UAE have a difficult relationship and different aims due to the war and this has meant they have largely divided their sphere of responsibilities, with Saudi controlling the war in the north and UAE taking little responsibility for the south militarily, but it is developing commercial interests there.

There is also animosity in both parts, but especially Hadramaut governors made statements about a year ago that they would not accept anyone from the old North Yemen, and many people there have developed an intolerant Sunni position, but they also want to keep free of the effects of the Yemen war.

In Aden the secessionist movement is strong – though not supported by everyone by any means – and the secessionists have said they will not accept any people from the north or even southerners that have lived for a long time in the north, and it seems to be that Aden Lahj and Bab al Mandab operate as a separate entity. They are not keen on having people from east and central Yemen move to Aden either because of their fears of the militias from there taking control – such as Al-Qaeda but not limited to Al-Qaeda. Taiz is more or less on its own. And the old north (less Taiz) is under the control of the Houthis and the old Yemen army.

What is happening with the government?

What is true is that in effect there are two systems of government, one in Sana’a and one mostly in Riyadh (with a few of the Riyadh ministers in Aden). There are two Yemen armies – most of the original army support the Houthis, and the new army is paid for by Saudi Arabia and trained by UAE  (KSA are mostly in Aden). There now appear to be two banks as president Abd Rabuh Mansur Hadi moved the central Yemen bank to Aden, with new staff, and the remaining central bank staff who were sacked by Hadi are still in Sana’a. So it’s a mess. As in all wars.

You’re constantly trying to bring attention to the issues of starvation and famine in Yemen. With food ships finding it hard to get into Yemen’s ports due to a virtual blockade, over half the country’s 28 million people already do not have enough to eat, according to the United Nations. How does that look like on the ground, how do the people survive?

The famine is everywhere in the north, but worst in Hodeida and the north west. It is getting more and more difficult for families to cope – even middle class families who used to have money don’t know how they can afford food. People have used up their savings and there are few jobs and little humanitarian aid getting in. Those with homes and businesses destroyed are not able to get any compensation.

Some people have family and friends overseas who are helping them to survive. The rich Inside Yemen have been very generous – for example providing most of the free water in cities. But even their resources are strained now because there is so much need. Some are just very hungry and some are starving to death, especially the very young. There are very few resources for the displaced.

Where do we move from now, what can be done in this situation?

It is difficult to see how the situation will change unless USA and UK stop their unconditional support for Saudi Arabia. I really don’t know what can be done and I feel desperate sometimes. It is a situation even more complex than Syria and it is escalating as USA seems to have joined in the war and Iranian warships are now openly stating that they are in Yemeni waters. But this is still not in the Western media. I just feel I have to keep on trying to get the story out and do what I can. But it’s not enough.

• • •

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

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art of resistance, Yemen

Playlist: The Melody Of Our Alienation (Yemen).

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                                                                                     /photo  © Jonathon Collins/

A horrific attack in Sana’a yesterday (Saudi-led warplanes struck a funeral, leaving more than 200 people killed, and more than 500 injured) took me back to Yemen and its tragedies, most of which are unravelling far from the media flashlights.

At the same time, there are reports about intensive care wards in Yemen’s hospitals being filled with emaciated children hooked up to monitors and drips – victims of food shortages that could get even worse due to a reorganisation of the central bank that is worrying importers.

With food ships finding it hard to get into Yemen’s ports due to a virtual blockade, over half the country’s 28 million people already do not have enough to eat, according to the United Nations.

It’s like Safa Al Ahmad describes it in an interview with Status Hour“Fighters are the ones who get salaries these days in Yemen, nobody else does. It just goes to show you how fragile the situation has become. I would argue that there’s no longer a Yemen, North and South are completely separate from each other”.

The playlist today is a small way of reaching out to Sana’a, to Yemen. The Melody of Our Alienation is a reminder that no matter how strange the city of Sana’a (and Yemen in general) feels now, its people are not strangers in their own city. It is their city. It is where they belong. It is where they will make a difference as agents of peace.

It’s a way of searching for something soft, something gentle, something that makes sense amidst this chaos:

“Sana’a.. Even if she slept on its sorrows for some time. Even if she caved in and the numbness took too long. Her morning shall revolt in the face of darkness. And certainly… The rain will one day wash away her drought.”

Previous Playlist:

Ruba Shamshoum

Jerusalem in my heart

Maghawir by Mashrou’ Leila

Selda Bağcan

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art of resistance, Palestine, Syria

The Book To Read: Victims Of A Map.

7-berlin-biennale-khaled-jarrar-briefmarken-2012-651x940/photo © Khaled Jarrar/

Victims of a Map is a beautiful bilingual anthology of Arabic poetry, including works of Mahmoud Darwish, Samih al Qasim and Adonis. The three of them are absolute stars in the world of (Arabic) poetry.

Alongside the original Arabic, this book includes thirteen poems by Darwish and a long work by Adonis written during the Beirut siege in 1982 – never before published. It’s really a labour of love and you can feel it in every page (lovely translation by Abudllah al-Udhari).

In The Desert (Diary of Beirut siege), great Syrian poet Adonis writes:

“My era tells me bluntly

you do not belong

I answer bluntly

I do not belong

I try to understand you

Now I am a shadow

Lost in the forest

Of a skull”

Most of the poetry by Adonis and Darwish and al-Qasim particularly, is written in a simple, everday language, but it speaks of the things greater than life – the hollowness of isolation, inevitability of “destiny”, solidity of “roots”, overwhelming hopelessness and permanent yearning for freedom.

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In We are Entitled to Love the End of Autumn Darwish writes:

“We are entitled to love the end of autumn and ask:

Is there room for another autumn in the field to rest our bodies like coal?

An autumn lowering its leaves like gold. I wish we were fig leaves

I wish we were an abandoned plant

To witness the change of seasons. I wish we didn’t say goodbye

To the south of the eye so as to ask what

Our fathers had asked when they flew on the tip of the spear”

As it is written in the introduction of this book, the poems in Victims of a Map express not only the fate of Arabs, Syrians or Palestinians, but also of the humanity itself, trapped in a contemporary tragedy. The resistance poetry by Darwish, al-Qasim and Adonis, raises a local tragedy to a level of a universal one.

Just think about it – how many people are today, and in how many ways – victims of a map? In The Story of a City, al-Qasim writes:

“A blue city

dreamt of tourists

shopping day after day.

A dark city

hates tourists

scanning cafes with rifles.”

Read this beautiful little anthology! Like it is often the case with great poetry books – you’ll never finish reading it and it is worth all of your time.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

War Works Hard

Desert Songs Of The Night

In The Country Of Men

After Zionism

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art of resistance, Iraq

The Book To Read: War Works Hard by Dunya Mikhail.

dunya1/Dunya Mikhail, photo via Vimeo/

Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail continues to amaze me. I recently read The War Works Hard, Mikhail’s first poetry collection translated to English (beautifully translated by Elizabeth Winslow). The War Works Hard was also the first translation of poems by a female Iraqi poet published in the United States (it was published in 2005).

The poems in this collection were written between 1985 and 2004, during the two decades of mainly sad and painful moments for Iraq and its people. Years of war working hard. In a poem I was in a hurry, Mikhail writes:

Yesterday I lost a country.

I was in a hurry,

And didn’t notice

When it fell from me

Like a broken branch from a forgetful tree

dunya

Mikhail was born in Iraq in 1965. While working as a journalist for the Baghdad Observer, she faced increasing threats from the authorities and fled first to Jordan and then to the United States in the late 1990s. In 2001, she was awarded the UN Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing.

When you first look at it, Mikhail’s poetry might seem very simple, but she manages to achieve so much with so little. Her writing is gentle, bare, unadorned, direct. The language is pointed, stark. There’s so much beauty, honesty and love in that – it’s moving, it’s thoughtful and respectful. It’s caring.

In a poem Prisoner, Mikhail writes:

She doesn’t understand

The prisoner’s mother doesn’t understand

Why she should leave him

Just because

“The visit is over”

I am thankful to Dunya Mikhail for continuing to write (Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea was published in 2009, Iraqi Nights in 2014), and to Elizabeth Winslow and Kareem James Abu-Zeid for translating Mikhail’s work and making it available for more readers everywhere.

I hope to read more of Mikhail’s new poetry, but I am also sure I will go back to The War Works Hard many times in the future. I’d go back, even if it was only for this verse:

You planted pomegranates and prisons

round, red and full.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

Desert Songs Of The Night

In The Country Of Men

After Zionism

The French Intifada

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art of resistance, Syria

After | Aleppo.

aleppo/Aleppo, illustration by the Lebanese artist Jana Traboulsi/

After Aleppo by Jehan Bseiso

I learned to read early.

But the truth is, sometimes I wish the letters remained funny drawings for longer, before the uninvited tyranny of words, and

before other tongues found home in my big mouth.

I don’t mean it literally.

One day, we will go back to Aleppo you said.

You don’t mean it literally.

Habeebi four years ago we shouted for change, and now we are citizens of border towns.

We go from Turkey, to Lebanon, to Egypt, but we don’t find Aleppo.

We have food vouchers, and, assistance criteria, and, intermittent empathy.

I don’t write any more poetry.

The boat is sinking,

literally,

but I don’t want to leave this room.

It smells like jasmine and you taste like freedom.

This poem was published in January last year, on Mada Masr.

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