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Covering Islam: Post Jack Shaheen

July 20, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The event of 9/11 is unparalleled in history, in drama, in audacity, in the terrorific images, in deaths, in its live transmission, in its ongoing controversies. It remains a traumatizing American experience with continually unfolding consequences. One result is the rise and persistence of hostility by Americans not only towards the perpetrators, Arab agents purportedly motivated by a religious ideologue, but also entire Arab nations and Arab and Muslim peoples worldwide.

This everlasting bitterness exaggerates the tragedy in the minds of Americans. At the same time, it interrupts and distorts Muslims’ self-identity and the daily injustices we experience.

Any conversation, private or public, with other Muslims about our current woes and anxieties-- our prayers and dreams, our relations with fellow students, neighbors and co-workers-- somehow finds its way back to that dreadful iconic date in 2001. It is a shadow haunting us wherever we go—to the ballot box, in our classroom, at a job interview, down our neighborhood street, on a holiday.

That event has become such a part of us, even if we think we buried it, that we unwittingly own it. We write books and magazine essays condemning terror and demonstrating our American-ness; we pen memoirs documenting our victimization; we reply to surveys testifying to our children’s bullying by classmates and teachers alike; we join interfaith sessions; we seek out grants to teach others about the calm nature of our religion and the beauty of our cultures. Even as we do so, that awful event remains the peg around which our existence rotates—favorably or otherwise.

The death of media critic Jack Shaheen earlier this month is an opportunity to offer our post-9/11 generation (there it is again) of activists and commentators an essential historical perspective on the demonizing process in which we are enmeshed.

Shaheen’s work needs to be better known by American Muslims. It warns us: “Go beyond 9/11; that vicious blight consuming our history and humanity has been with us for a long time. It’s not only driven by our nightly news broadcasts; it is embedded in our children’s school books and our most entertaining action films starring our favorite actors”.

As powerful as the medieval Christian crusade, Hollywood’s film industry is behind a century of productions targeting Arab and Muslim peoples—in animated children’s films, exotic tales of romance, and in American war legends.

Shaheen was a professor of communications who focused his attention as a media critic on film portrayals of Arabs; his exhaustive work provides irrefutable documentation of the creation of the “bad arab” in cinema and lore. He expanded his arguments, first published in TV Arab (1984), in his later book, Reel Bad Arabs (2001 and 2012), offering hundreds of examples of the mindless belly dancer, the veiled seductress, the sword-wielding assassin, the hook-nosed desert nomad, the oil-rich despot. You know them well.

Since the early days of the silent cinema those images remain popular in today’s biggest Hollywood blockbusters. The terrifying Arab was ultimately given a tangible personality in the form of the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization). As noted by Rima Najjar writing about the political manipulation of this concept “The pattern of dehumanizing Palestinian Arabs and/or deliberately obscuring their humanity are factors that have facilitated Israel’s project of designating Palestinian resistance movements as terror organizations.”

Although the PLO was distinctly secular and socialist, by the 1980s their image became layered with a religious identity conveniently found in the Gaza-based movement Hamas. As Hamas gained recognition as the image of Palestinian resistance, the threat to Israel was now ‘Islamic terror’.

In 1984 came the highly successful autobiography Not without My Daughter which in 1991 was made into a popular film of the same name starring Sally Fields. Its promotional blurb sums up the storyline thus: “An American woman, trapped in Islamic Iran by her brutish husband, must find a way to escape with her daughter…” Septembers of Shiraz, a 2015 film I plucked at random from my local library only yesterday, assures continuation of filmic exploitation of a ‘revolutionary Iran’ and Islam, and the racist values they perpetuate. We are reminded of our media’s role in this process with a recent admission by the New York Times.

The course by which Islam became such a fearsome concept, effectively manipulated for political purposes primarily through American media is best documented by the outstanding culture critic Edward Said in his 1981 Covering Islam. Even today, with our abundance of so-called experts on Islam, from gadflies to published professors, Covering Islam remains unsurpassed as an analysis of the role of our media in designing a frightening ogre for American consumption, a creation that daily deepens mistrust among peoples and shapes foreign policy. Nothing I have read in these decades of overwhelming attention on Islam supersedes Said’s brilliant, straightforward analysis. Along with Mahmood Mamdani’s Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, it ought to be read and used by every journalism student, every political scientist, every anthropologist, and every Muslim.

Shaheen’s exposé on the role of film in fostering and supporting racism applies to education (sic) about our Native Americans, Black Americans, Asian peoples, even Irish and Italian. Our Black citizens are hard at work using their resources and political savvy to overturn centuries of misrepresentation. Muslims can do it too. We must. Muslim comedians have broken the ground; the next step is to make our own films.

Analysis has its limits; film is a powerful artistic tool that can sweep aside all arguments and misunderstandings. 

 

[ Covering Islam: Post Jack Shaheen ]

Participation Observations in A New Jersey Nursing Home

July 12, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The years when my mother was stricken with dementia—my sister bore the agonizing learning, the burden, and the testament thrust upon the family. So I’ve never felt the bewilderment, stress and agony of supporting a beloved parent--she who had unfailingly represented strength and self-reliance-- that strong, sharp-minded and nurturing woman transformed before our eyes into an exasperating, confused and needy child.

Inevitably however, each of us has to confront dementia-- this now-routine feature of our human evolution. If we are not watching our own identity gradually fragment and escape our soul, then we witness it happening to a close relative or a beloved friend.

Yvonne is one of two dear companions on her way into this matrix.

Like many women and men afflicted by some form of dementia, Yvonne possesses some self-awareness of her haunted status with periods of corresponding lucidity. (Bursts of clarity by Alzheimer's patients are perhaps most perceptively and tenderly documented by the neurologist and author Oliver Sacks; in particular, look for The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat and Musicophilia.)

I don’t know if she knows Sacks’ work, but Yvonne has decided she wants to help me, as a writer, record snatches of herself during this moment in her 91-year history. It helps me too: first it prepares me, if anything can, for my march towards this disease; second, Yvonne does this with her characteristic humor and also with uncanny perspicuity, e.g. “I don’t know who I am” (uttered after a troubling episode of daydreams). Thus, as if to escape her sadness and confusion, she welcomes my visits at Vintage Homes (not a completely fictional name), to report her observations-- we can’t call it ‘progress'—to me. 

On each occasion I hear Yvonne's complaint about the morning singsong exercise underway down the hall. Why that annoys her so, I’m uncertain. She likes to sing. But if her neighbors are going to stammer out pre-war songs, she’d rather they be in French; that’s how she learned them when she lived in Dieppe during the war. “’Over here, over there!’ Oooo la la. They tell me these are turn-of-the-century songs. Which century? I ask.”

Well Yvonne, I know how much you like singing. You have friends here. Why not start your own sing-along?

“Yes, but to do that I first have to feel happy.” I know she’s purposefully sardonic and I have no rejoinder.

Yvonne is no activist or reformer. Besides her incessant yearning to go home (“This is a boot camp”), she tolerates her imprisonment here by studying those around her. In the weeks she has lived at Vintage, she’s developed a special compassion for the workers, especially younger staff.

“The workers here: they are young; they are cheerful. I speak in French sometimes with one boy-- maybe he’s from Morocco. All of them seem so lively. Not that new girl, the tall one in red; she was fired. You see, she refused to do her job. I think she was right; because the man who she was in charge of dirtied his pants and she was supposed to wipe his bottom. She refused. C’est son droit. How can she be forced to do that? She has her dignity. Can you blame her? She refused and the head woman fired her. That’s her there by the door; yes, she’s still here because they took her back.

“These helpers are kind, so kind. I respect them. They have to wipe us; front and back too.

“You know there is one girl who goes into the bed with Dorothy, the woman in the room near mine. She cries and cries at bedtime, so the girl herself goes into the bed too, and she holds Dorothy until she’s asleep. Can you imagine? Si touchante.

“We are clean; everything’s clean. The place doesn’t smell; the windows are big. They’re locked, of course. Yes, it is a prison nonetheless. Sans aucun doute. Who are they fooling? No use telling them that I know.

 “‘Oh, it’s not so bad.’ This is what visitors exclaim when they arrive from California to see their grandmother. ‘It’s not so bad’, you say? Well, of course. You don’t have to live here.

“What do they expect?  I think it’s the cloth napkins that really impress them. Clean napkins every meal--likely better than they have in their own home, after all.

 “There’s one woman here who I would like to speak to. I think she’s lesbian. I hear she’s a professor of astronomy, something like that. Speak to her? Me? I don’t know what to say. Anyway, she never speaks. It’s clear she doesn't want to talk to anyone. She just watches. No, I don’t want to talk with her.”

“I remember Bob sometimes.” (Bob was Yvonne’s son who died four years ago.) “And I don’t think he’d be happy, not at all, to see me here. He would never have allowed anyone to move me here.”

One day I arrived at noon and found Yvonne in the dining hall with the three women she shares the lunch table with. Elba insists I should have something to eat with them, assuring me visitors are permitted to join the lunch. So she orders soup for me. Elba and the others are reluctant to begin eating until I’m served, and it’s taking some time because the staff has to first attend to all the regulars. So Clara gives me her bowl, and then Yvonne, feeling badly because I’m her guest gives her soup to Clara. So the soup bowls somehow get shifted around the table. When the server arrives with my bowl she’s visibly upset to find me consuming my soup. She rushes away, returns with a tray and removes all the bowls, even mine. “No; no, every bowl of soup has specific medicine,” she whispers with less annoyance than I’d expect. Yvonne chuckles, “And they think we don’t know what’s going on.

“Yes”, Yvonne declares. “I have lots of time to watch others….

“They fall asleep. That’s what they do. Sleep is the best way to deal with this place.” 

“I don’t want to be with people who are not in this life. Who wants to stay in a place where no one is alive?”

“Of course I want to go out. We are not permitted. And they insist I have to use my cane even here, indoors. They say ‘No. No. We have to watch you. We don't want anything to happen to you Yvonne, do we.’

“What can happen to me? I can only die here, that’s all; that’s why I’m here and not in my home. Are they trying to make me live forever?”

[ Participation Observations in A New Jersey Nursing Home ]

Democracy in Nepal Passes a Second Test

July 05, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Nepal’s 28 million citizens have waited 20 years for the elections that finally took place during recent weeks (with the final 10 percent of ballots still being counted). These are nationwide elections for city, ward and village chairpersons, mayors and councils-- positions vacant for two decades. These newly elected officials might offer some order and hope to citizens’ largely stagnant lives for too long. The democracy they had welcomed with the overthrow of the monarchy brought them little beyond party and ethnic squabbles and ineffective governance from Kathmandu, their corruption-infected capital.

The U.S. public and American media are usually fixated on human trafficking, Hindu goddesses, Buddhist monks and Himalayan lore when pausing momentarily to glance at Nepal. The U.S. State Department has shown little interest in the country’s determined although lumbering course into democracy as well.

This infant republic was created in 2008, brought about in large part by a hard-fought Maoist revolution that forced the government to sign a cease fire and accept Maoist participation in the nation’s governance. A plethora of parties fighting for dominance led to unsteady coalitions, while a succession of Maoist and Marxist-Leninist leaders shared a fragile leadership, almost by rotation. Not the color of democracy the U.S. would endorse and celebrate. Even when the 240 year old monarchy was abolished in 2008, there was no audible cheering in Delhi, London or Washington.

Nevertheless this awakened people forged indomitably ahead. While the central government operated by patching together a constituent assembly to function as a parliament, divvying up the leadership among the major parties to solidify the democracy, a new constitution for the republic was essential. A constitution would define election zones and administrative districts, allocate seats, qualify candidates and voters, and set standards for the campaign and polling processes of the new democracy. Meanwhile identity politics became an increasingly contentious issue, further delaying accord on the constitution.

Finally in 2015 the constitution was voted in, paving the way for these elections. After 20 years without representative local government, citizens--from isolated mountainous regions to densely populated tropical plains, in every city and village--have their opportunity to try out democracy in their own neighborhood.

This long anticipated event drew many aspiring newcomers to declare their candidacy:--young challengers, women (by law entitled to 30% of seats), and dalits (discriminated castes) who, like women, had not previously considered leadership positions. On its side, the citizenry has proved surprisingly engaged in this election. Farmers took precious time from planting season and faced hazardous travel conditions during the monsoon rains, to cast their ballots.

Unhampered by their infancy as a democracy and aware of the opportunity to counter a pervasive culture of squabbling pretenders and corrupt party politics, Nepalis today are somehow optimistic about new possibilities. They still feel the effects of the vacuum in leadership in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake. Because no local authorities were in place to systematically coordinate aid, compensation and repairs of damaged buildings and roads were neglected or haphazardly managed.

An astonishing average 70% turnout at the polls has surprised many observers. Especially city people did not expect their uneducated citizens and villagers they had judged as ‘politically illiterate’ to exhibit such keenness. Kathmandu residents closely following the results interviewed in recent days seemed optimistic. Villagers’ response is also impressive because travel is hazardous during the monsoon rains; and this is the planting season when farmers, women and men who constitute majority of the population, are occupied in their fields.

As for the election results, beyond the high turnout, there have been some upsets in party standing: first, we see generally lower support across the country for the Maoist Party; it registers a weak third place in the polls. Maoists played a major role in Nepal’s transition to democracy and the establishment of the republic after the 2006 cease fire with their leaders holding the premiership at various times since then. But during their dominance over the past decade, they’ve earned a reputation for corruption on the same scale as other parties

With almost all the results tabulated for the 15,000 posts being contested, the outcome is clear and consistent nationwide. Leading the polls unequivocally with 133 local units is the Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML or MLN) in coalition with the Communist Part of Nepal (CPN). (Note: In regards to the leftist designation of Maoist and UML, none are as socialist as might be expected: e.g. none have carried out land reform.) They’re followed by wins in 115 localities by the centrist Congress Party which dominated politics in Nepal’s pre-republic era. What surprises B. Shrestha, a Nepali colleague contacted by phone, is the outcome in the Terai (the plains area bordering India). There, the UML is leading, taking precedence over small regional ‘ethnic’ parties. The results seem to be a turnaround for the region which had taken a hostile stance towards the dominant parties and held up the signing of the constitution. Its embrace of the UML-CPN is a sign that the Terai is more firmly a member of the republic. (On another front, poor showing by the royalist party suggests that Nepal’s monarchy is truly put to rest.)

Many women candidates succeeded in wining both mayoral and deputy mayoral positions. Their success follows a constitutional mandate and the standard set by three women in Nepal’s top positions, including president, in the central government. This will surely become a watershed for an increased presence of women not only at the national level but also in local leadership.

Last October, as the American presidential campaign was drawing to a close, I joined a family of Sherpa friends around a warming wood stove at their family home in the mountains. When conversation turned for a few moments from their own party politics to the U.S election, someone commented: “Well, if in 240 years the Americans haven’t worked out everything, Nepal, in less than 15 years, isn’t doing so badly.”  

[ Democracy in Nepal Passes a Second Test ]

Two Black Man Films: "Fences" and "Moonlight"

June 28, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Both of these award-winning new releases are exclusively acted by Black Americans and could be seen as slices of African American life. Each focuses on the life of a man, the life of an individual that’s offered to us with such a high level of acting that the black in the story disappears. 

I have long respected the talent of actor Denzel Washington despite his appearance in so many films with violent themes, and even though he usually plays noble men. The first time I saw him was in Mira Nair’s 1991 film Mississippi Masala in the role of Demetrius Williams. There and his many superb performances thereafter is why I decided to view Fences. I wanted to hear his consummate voice again. Washington’s familiar timbre is barely recognizable in Fences. But I was not disappointed.

As strong as Viola Davis is as his co-star, Washington is outstanding, arguably because he’s able to totally disembody himself and build the complex character of Troy Maxson, the central figure in Fences. That performance stands out for me because I forgot that his skin color and that of the other characters is black. Not only this; I forgot that Troy Maxson is the actor Denzel Washington. In Fences Troy completely overtakes Washington; moreover, we recognize him as a type of man who to one degree or another we feel we know personally. Troy is a person I know.

If you’re familiar with the narrative of Fences, you’ll understand what I mean. What many reviews overlook is the complexity of the character Maxson, a hard working man, but a man bent, wasted, and embittered. Troy Maxson is a man with unrealized expectations as a baseball player, a father unable to inspire his sons, a brother carrying a shame he cannot hide; he’s a father who does not enjoy the pride he desperately needs. Thanks to Washington’s artistry, we may walk away from the film reflecting on some failure in ourselves or someone close to us, how we manifest our letdown, and perhaps like Troy, inflict hardships on those dear to us. I hadn’t seen this human experience played so powerfully on screen in many years.

Few actors can transcend either their race or their celebrity with a performance like Washington gives us in Fences. Which takes me to Moonlight, another outstanding recent film with a full cast of African Americans and centered on a Black American family. Mahershala Ali, best known for his fine performance as the self-serving lobbyist in the televised series House of Cards, was awarded an Oscar for his supporting role in Moonlight. But the real talent there is exhibited by the three actors who play the boy, the teen, and the adult ‘Chiron’ whose painful growth we follow into adulthood. Moonlight is also a story about manhood, about feelings unrealized (labeled by others as a “gay coming of age film”). Beautifully constructed and with restrained, spare dialogue, most of the film seems to be a story about one corner of Black American life. But with the final scene when Chiron, powerfully played by Trevante Rhodes, now transformed into a man, confronts his first love, a childhood friend, it rises to another level. It is a love story, pure and subtle. No race, no class; just two men quietly finding each other. 

 

[ Two Black Man Films: "Fences" and "Moonlight" ]

Palestinians Will Never Give Up

June 15, 2017

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Every month, it seems, a new book on Palestine comes across my desk for review. I think: “Oh, this reminds me of one I saw last year,” or “She’ll likely pursue the same theme as in her last novel.” Perusing a few pages of this volume, seeing that the stories herein are not really new, I nevertheless declare: “They will never give up.”

I mean by this, the infinite ways that Palestinians-- mother, child, shopkeeper, student, prisoner, poet, exile or resident, teacher or politician, from peasants to scions of established Jerusalem or Jaffa families—devise to narrate their heavily traveled route from the bucolic olive groves and stone houses of the Jordan Valley, across the biblical lands, through wars to prisoner cells, tattered refugee shelters, and uneasy exile.

When I say ‘they never give up’ I am of course aware that countless have. Many perished in their struggle for statehood by one means or another; others have been co-opted into a bourgeois lifestyle and successfully (sic) assimilated, or otherwise lured away. Perhaps for every one still identifying with the struggle, ten times that number has burned out and abandoned the cause. Not to mention countless (millions) of fellow Arabs who championed their cause with their scholarship and poems, through sanctuary, financial aid, diplomacy, and armed action as well.

Still we have at least four generations of Palestinians dispersed throughout the world--from Australia and South Africa to inside Israel, to the Caribbean, Brazil and our NY neighborhoods-- who persist. Many feel compelled to know and value their story, then to make others hear them and be moved. It’s not just the injustices and indignities endured, but the contrary too: stories embedded in found family portraits, in diplomas won, in property deeds folded away, in emblems embroidered into gowns, and in songs. 

Just last month, my colleague Francisco Casanova (Chahin/el-Mufdi) originally of Beit Jala near Bethlehem, now settled in New York via Dominican Republic, circulated a newly unearthed photo of his great-grandparents Yadallah and Ackle Mufdi (~1920), located by his cousin in a magazine in Dominican Republic where Francisco’s family settled in the late 1800s.

This is one example of tens of thousands of narratives that infuse an enduring campaign to resist. Traces make threads and threads are woven into something decipherable emerging into an instrument for action. Defying the Zionist agenda to erase Palestine, more stories emerge, year after year-- from those married to non-Palestinians, even children of families who seemed to have forgotten the homeland. Memoirs pour forth from those with the most tenuous ties to the land, and from those newly dispersed. This “persistence of memory” is discussed in poet Ibtisam Barakat’s latest essay.

What provokes my observation ‘they never give up’ is not just today’s hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners, those past daring flotillas to Gaza, inspiring graffiti on the apartheid wall, or words by hip-hop artist Shadia Mansour. It’s the tireless reinvention of the quintessential story.

On my desk is the newly released Young Palestinians Speak: Living Under Occupation, yet another collection of testimonials and historical sketches. Designed for young readers it offers maps, notes, interviews and photos assembled by two British writers.

Some may conclude it’s a worn and futile theme. Indeed, the book offers nothing new to those familiar with Palestinian history. But we always find people for whom the story is unknown. The books roll on, even when few Palestinian histories will reach American schoolrooms. A portrayal of military occupation in another part of the world may be welcome by librarians. But given Israel’s vigilance of its international image, this book, if selected for an American school library or listed as a school resource for world history, may find itself banned.

From the testimonies of the children interviewed and comments by school staff quoted in Young Palestinians Speak, the injustices are evident. Like another collection for young readers, Gaza Writes Back some writers, editors and publishers remain compelled to remind us of the story of Palestine. Sameeha Elwan, one of 23 contributors to the Gaza book writes how each tale, “whether it stems from genuine experience, the representation of experiences of others, or those enshrined in Palestinians by virtue of being Palestinian … are worth remembering and telling. Memory is itself the only thing that is left of (our) comprehension of home and identity.”  END

 

[ Palestinians Will Never Give Up ]
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