Blog Archive

Blog Archive – 2012

Only in New York: one December ride downtown

December 24, 2012

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

At 72nd street, I boarded the downtown train that would take me straight to lower Manhattan. Instead of turning to read my newspaper, I became absorbed with a fellow passenger. I first noticed him because when I entered the subway car, he gazed directly at me, as if assessing me. Was I someone he knew?

He was perhaps 30, dressed in a light jacket, too light for this winter day, I thought. Although he had on sturdy boots. With knees pressed together, he sat erect, surveying passengers as they boarded.

When the train started up he turned to what lay on his lap. His hand was moving rapidly, his body tense, his eyes animated. Boyd’s hand was sketching something. No. Someone.

I was seated opposite him in the subway train and learned his name was Boyd when the man sitting to his left passed him his card, and I heard the artist volunteer “I’m Boyd” in reply.

My eyes remained on Boyd all the way downtown. His wrist moved in short jerks over the paper on his knee; he momentarily glanced at the woman seated beside me, then down to his worksheet, then back to her. While she gazed at the screen of her mobile phone, Boyd proceeded with the portrait, unconcerned by his subject’s indifference. He worked rapidly expecting she wouldn’t be there for long. Indeed, barely half a minute later, she rose. The train was pulling into 42nd street.

Boyd slid the paper out of his pad and handed it to the woman as the train doors opened. She took it without hesitation and, smiling shyly, glanced back at Boyd as she disappeared onto the subway platform. Our car took on new riders and proceeded southward on its mid-day run to Brooklyn.

The train was not crowded so I continued observing Boyd unimpeded. He looked from right to left for a new subject, his hand poised above his paper, then settled on the passenger seated right beside him. She too seemed unaware of his attention.

Barely two minutes passed before the train slid in to 14th street and now, as this woman left her seat, Boyd again gently handed over the portrait he’d drawn.

“Oh, that’s me. Why thank-you.” She too stepped out of the train looking pleased, holding the sketch in front of her while she fumbled with her bag trying to decide where to safely put it.

As the train moved on with a fresh assembly of New Yorkers replacing those who’d disembarked, Boyd’s roving eyes fixed on a tall woman gripping the pole near the doors. She stood motionless, two bags held close to her chest, her head held high. I noticed her smart high-collared off-white coat. She stood very still, eyes fixed on the windows opposite. Outside, steel columns of the subway tunnel flashed by.

Boyd had only a side view of this traveler-- hatless, hair pulled back from her face, the stiff collar rising to her cheekbone.  This would be a profile.

Boyd finished this sketch in no time at all. Now he half stood, leaning sideways across another rider to hand the paper drawing to the woman. Trustingly, she took it, and without looking directly at Boyd she leaned against the pole as she examined the portrait in her hand. The train sped through two local stops while she paused, then fumbled through her bag and extracted a bill, shoving other loose dollars back into her purse. Then she leaned towards Boyd and passed the money to him.

One dollar! I was disappointed. But Boyd accepted it graciously.

We’d reached West 4th street. The lady with the high collared coat remained standing while the New York artist rose and left the car, his spent pad of paper clutched under his arm.  

[ Only in New York: one December ride downtown ]

Gather little children...

December 16, 2012

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

There is surely nowhere in the world, from the open Mongolian steppe to a cramped lane in Gaza City, where people do not know the sound of children in school. It’s a dear sound--  half-finished sentences and jostling little bodies, high pitched singing and new friendships, uninhibited yelps and teachers’ gentle proddings, a row of chatting parents waiting outside at the end of the learning day.

However undeveloped a place, universal education exists across our globe. So while we may not be familiar with a college campus or a multiplex cinema, we know the place where our children begin to learn. In this tender setting, little ones make their first venture into the world.

Whether our own children have long ago moved on, or if we live in a bustling city or on a quiet country lane, our days are somehow marked by children setting out for school. 

The primary school I know best and whose children I recall so vividly today happen to live in Nepal. The buildings sit on the edge of Kathmandu city near Balaju bridge, off noisy Nayaa Bazaar. A poor neighborhood by some standards but it’s the most important place to the 400 children who have begun their learning here. These Nepali 2nd graders are surely the same height, with the same bright eyes, the same pitched squeals exchanged with playmates, the same shyness, the same small fingers gripping a bright crayon as those little boys and girls at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Connecticut.

The events in USA last week make those sounds across the globe more precious today. As we connect them, maybe grieving Americans can better understand the silence of little Palestinian and Pakistani and Iraqi corpses.

[ Gather little children... ]

Generals and other leaders

December 14, 2012

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

It’s the time when journalists review the past 12 months to tally blunders, setbacks and successes. It’s a time too, to reflect on leaders—media leaders, financial leaders, political leaders. What they do not look at is the moral standard by which men— leadership is still about the actions and qualities of men—are judged.

Earlier this week, a fleeting news item revealed that the former head of the International Monetary Fund and possible French presidential aspirant had reached a settlement with the NY hotel maid whom he’d assaulted. At the time of the incident, Dominique Strauss-Kahn was portrayed in very bad light; the US media had a field day with his appearance in court. A year later the once powerful international figure maintains a quiet life and, we assume, the future holds no political prospects for him.

The case of Strauss-Kahn will remind us what happened to the celebrated American military leader, ex-CIA chief David Petraeus. (According to some, Petraeus too was presidential material.) The US  media was easier on Petraeus than the IMF chief. Still, he too has slipped from the stage… for the present. Given the capriciousness of the press and its capacity to forgive the wayward ways of ambitious men,  one or both of these naughty boys may one day return to public life. We have sufficient historical precedents for that.  

None of that interests me. Because something more basic is being missed in both these judgments, namely the business of war that generals and their civilian commanders work in. How is it that today, sexual morality trumps the evils of war? Take recent American wars—the wars Petraeus himself (in a line of military heroes) executed under a series of US presidents.

Why is sexual philandering judged more harshly than our treacherous, bloody and failed war-making? By failed wars I do not simply refer to failure to achieve military goals. I mean wars conducted with a failed morality, wars justified by lies. No one is held responsible for hundreds of thousands of lives and many more wounded, civilian and military, for billions of misspent funds and widespread poverty. Today few will argue that these wars were worthwhile. Who dares to claim that the US sanctions-war and subsequent invasion and occupation of Iraq were morally justifiable or strategically sound? Surely the war against Afghanistan is equally ignoble and wasted? Today American leaders seek no more than a successful ‘exit strategy’ from Afghanistan, one they can sell to US citizens and lawmakers as equal to their military departure from Iraq.

In acknowledging strategic failures, tallying of trillions of wasted defense dollars, witnessing the utter destruction of nations, admitting that countries America claimed to liberate may actually be in far worse condition now than before, who is held responsible? With US torture practices revealed, shameful behavior of soldiers exposed, the rage and antagonism US wars engendered, although a handful of journalists reveal US war crimes, in fact no US leader has been fired, removed in disgrace, or charged with war crimes or incompetence. Simon Jenkins makes this point in his review of the David Petraeus scandal “Fire leaders for failure, not for cheating”  (The Guardian Weekly, Nov. 23, 2012). In modern times US military leaders are remembered as valiant heroes; they lecture to university audiences and write popular books about their exploits.  Why do we buy them?

[ Generals and other leaders ]

Never have their words sounded so hollow...

December 05, 2012

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

I’m speaking about American leaders. When Susan Rice, US representative at the United Nations, responded to the November 29th UN Assembly vote on Palestine, she was followed by equally fatuous remarks by Hillary Clinton, US Secretary State. Listening to them, I had to ask: do these exalted representatives of America not comprehend their marginalization and illogic? They are out of touch with reality. Even Israel effectively dismissed Rice’s shameless defense of Israel by initiating more settlement construction and collective punishments to the occupied Palestinians.

OK; the Palestinian leadership has still a long road to walk. Based on its own pathetic negotiating skills and the endless rejectionist maneuvers by Israel, it is difficult to see what real gains on the ground the UN vote will offer Palestinians, especially since Rice warned this very futility (surely by contemplating an American regime of punishment and embargo). But the American objections to the UN vote last week were nothing if not dishonorable.

Ambassador Rice brazenly declares “Progress … cannot be made by pressing  a green voting button here in this hall”. What arrogance! And what disregard for history. Was Israel not recognized by a vote here in this hall? And this counsel from a nation that attacks and embargos sovereign states and imposes itself into others’ elections to see that they ‘push a voting button’. What best symbolizes democracy but the ballot? What most inspires us more than to witness responsible, hopeful women and men taking their place to cast their ballot?

The American rationale to oppose the overwhelming statement by world representatives regarding Palestine is like that of a delusional dictator.

I note that it’s only Americans refer to their president as ‘leader of the free world’.  Yes, the US can lead by bullying; its president can charm; its military forces and diplomats can threaten and bully and bomb. But it cannot lead by legal and moral example.

[ Never have their words sounded so hollow... ]

While mothers in Gaza and Syria bury their sons…

November 23, 2012

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Here on America’s Thanksgiving weekend, I accompany a mother as she arranges final rites for her only son Robert. Because I knew Robert and his mom, I’ve been drawn into the family during his final days and hours, with his last feebly spoken words to us, decisions with medics on his transfer to the hospice, searching his mobile phone to locate associates we never met, contacting distant family.

What stands out in this otherwise sad and heavy experience is the support system available to his mother; she’s 86 and a widow with no family nearby.

Having recently returned from Asia, I remember how friends there express pity and disdain for what they understand as an impoverished family structure in the West. “There’s no one to look after you”, they charge. “You’ve no help at times of need.” This is true only to a limited degree. Anyway I wonder if the West can match the misery I see so many Asian daughters-in-law experience (only one of many ills I see in that ‘glorified’ extended family-- Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian).

Reviewing recent election statistics, I am reminded that a startling 28% of adult Americans live alone. (In Scandinavian countries, it’s 45%.) But this doesn’t mean Americans and Europeans endure their personal crises alone. Today, what I am witnessing around the death of Robert is testimony to this. Pauline, the grieving mother who I’ve been with this week, is a member of a neighborhood circle of 8 women. These friends range in age from 72 to 90; some live alone; some have children; some have salaried jobs while others are retired. They meet regularly, it seems, to celebrate birthdays and for holiday celebrations; they phone each other to check on needs; they listen to each other, advise each other, and they have fun together too. I met most of them in recent days, gathering around Pauline after they learned her son was failing. Distant relatives will be flying in from California, Georgia and elsewhere for the funeral but Pauline’s friends are here at the hardest moments and will be here after the relatives return to their homes.

Back to our Gaza and Syrian mothers: their sons and daughters die as martyrs. Most of us do not understand that experience, deaths which the entire nation mourns and also celebrates. Meanwhile so many of these war mothers are deprived of the wide possibilities women could have, in order to birth and nurture their young ones-- their duty for the revolution.  

[ While mothers in Gaza and Syria bury their sons… ]

Ignore the Stupid Thing? Not So Easy.

September 27, 2012

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

I too said I was going to ignore that film. Even when I felt offended and repulsed after viewing just a few moments of the stupid video, I resolved to leave it behind. But speaking with others, equally disgusted, or despondent, and learning about people overseas hurting and dying in defense of their dignity, of hollow arguments for free speech, I wonder if one can really ignore what created the video, the objections to it, and now further ramifications.

One more insult to all Muslims comes at a time when in general, we see evidence of islamophobia increasing across the USA. Only this week we have a US judge deciding in favor of the posting of undisguised anti-Muslim ads in NY city and other public transit systems around the country.

We also are put on the spot when even sympathetic associates ask us for our response, our feeling about these spiraling events. Can I just walk away asserting ‘it’s stupid and nobody cares’. Can I tell others to ignore it? Can I say it’s a media hype that focuses only on a isolated angry groups that represent no one? Or, it’s a right wing electioneering tactic? Can I say it’s a passing thing and will blow over? Can I say they (the video-makers and protesters too) have a right; this is democracy? Can I blame A, B, or C? Can I say: look at the real advances Muslims are making with their democratic transitions?

Yes, I too wish it would blow away. Eventually we will move on. But move to what? We go from one outburst like this to the next, one insult to the next…somehow seeing little headway in what is now not a post-2001 rise of anti-Muslim episodes but a long history of confrontation. It accelerated in the last century following Iran’s Islamic revolution, receiving injections of fury from the West with the 1991 first Gulf War, and again in 2001. This confrontation is going to be with us for years to come, and we had better start doing a better job than we have to date to reverse its course. I believe it can and must start with American Muslims. We count a lot of really fine, talented people in our ranks.

A few organizations said to represent us here meekly advise caution; meanwhile there is no creative and courageous leadership for us to look to, and no public protests to join. Maybe unhappy events like those we witness today will finally inspire the leadership we need.

[ Ignore the Stupid Thing? Not So Easy. ]

American Muslims-- Gains and Setbacks

September 17, 2012

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The position of Muslims in America should be improving, not worsening. We have dedicated civil rights lawyers, defending wronged citizens and advocating justice. We have articulate scholars explaining the history and theology of Islam. We have comedians, writers, actors and directors telling stories that engagingly express our problems, history, values and shared foibles and dreams. We have journalists employing their skills and their knowledge of our society to show the real lives and concerns of individual Muslims. We have professors debating and publishing. We have countless citizens answering misconceptions and setting the record straight in forums , blogs, and opeds. We have abundant interfaith dialogues. We have government grants supporting programs that educate Americans about our history and many nations. Usually, I feel encouraged by the efforts that thousands of fellow Muslims are making. As many of you know, through RAWI and RadioTahrir, I’m personally and professionally involved in this work.


So why the increased incidence of bullying of Muslim children in our schools? Why rising attacks against our institutions? Why ongoing insults shouted at us in the street? Why community protests at Arab street festivals and why neighborhood opposition to our local mosques? Why physical attacks on individuals, and vicious racist calls? Why continual suspicious looks, and expanded government surveillance of our student organizations, our cafes and our neighborhoods?


Many Americans insist that our president Barack Obama is Muslim, alleging this is something reprehensible. As former Secretary of Defense Colin Powell responded to this charge: “What if he is? That should not be an issue one needs to deny… as if it were shameful.” Surely this was a line for the US President himself. On a more modest personal level, the debate over Muslim women’s headscarf goes on and on; the media and our putative feminists just won’t let it go.


Now, over the past week, anyone who has tried to demonstrate that Islam is a religion of peace, has been forced into silence. How can we continue to argue this in the face of many hours of TV images of mobs of angry Muslims assaulting Americans every time they turn to watch the news?

American Muslims, who demonstrate so much creativity and optimism, still have a lot of work cut out for us.

And please, you tell me—are we really making any progress here?

[ American Muslims-- Gains and Setbacks ]

Killing Machines

July 23, 2012

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

While Americans mourn their shocking but all too frequent massacres in this country, my thoughts go to the use of those very same guns  across the world, machines that kill dozens daily, nightly. Less than in battle between opposing armies, these arms destroy families during their celebrations, laborers on their way home, children asleep beside their grandparents. Yes, nowhere is safe.

Mass murders in their own schools and cinemas ought to help Americans understand the insecurity that befalls too many people across the world.

Yet, I hear nothing of the widespread fear outside the US that these all-too-familiar and terrifying weaponry, bombs and handheld guns, generate. There may be calls for more restrictive gun laws for Americans—pleas that will fall on deaf ears, regrettably. But one hears not a word about restricting the manufacture and sales of weapons globally. Most of these mass destruction arms originate in the USA. Nearly 40% of arms sales worldwide are through US contractors. The ‘health’ of the American economy relies heavily on armaments sales. Figures of revenue generated in this sector are staggering, and increasing every year.

A 2007 San Francisco Chronicle article notes “Despite a recession that knocked down global arms sales last year, the United States expanded its role as the world's leading weapons supplier, increasing its share to more than two-thirds of all foreign armaments deals, according to a new study. … signed weapons agreements valued at $37.8 billion in 2008, or 68.4 percent of all business in the global arms bazaar, up significantly from American sales of $25.4 billion the year before”.

From a 2010 Guardian news item we learn: “The average volume of arms sales increased by 22% over the past five years …says the report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute ( …” This report, the Guardian points out, “does not give the cost of the arms trade because most governments no longer release the figures. Britain stopped publishing the cost of its arms sales last year. ….The US remains the world's top arms exporter, accounting for 30% of the total, followed by Russia (23%), Germany (11%), and France (8%).”

Then, according to the SIPRI report in 2011, sales by the world’s top 100 arms manufacturing companies increased even further to reach $401 billion. And this is an accounting only of ‘legal’ arms trading!

I don’t know the answer. But I do recognize the connections. Isn’t that a place to begin?




[ Killing Machines ]

Algeria Left Out of Arabs' Spring

July 18, 2012

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria:-- all ‘in transition’ to one degree or another. Some uprisings are inspired from within; some are promoted by outside forces. Particles of leaked news suggest civil unrest continues in Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan. No corner of our troubled Arab World is spared, it seems.

Wherever one party rules, corruption is often not far behind, and desperate jobless youths demand change. Common conditions in Arab societies, alas.

The West watches with interest. World leaders sometimes declare “it’s time for him to step aside.” Elsewhere they offer military assistance, diplomatic cover, or a shield from prying media. Meanwhile funds are allocated and NGOs furnish our hungry IT generation with ‘democracy workshops’.

By now it’s obvious that ‘Arab Spring’ is a capricious and selective phenomenon. Nowhere is this discrimination better illustrated than Algeria.

And what about Algeria? A major partner in the Arab league, a steadfast friend of Palestinians, a model of anti-colonial struggle. It’s also a place with serious domestic problems, no effective democracy, and limited human rights. Where is she today?

Bordering Libya and Tunisia, sharing many of the economic and political woes of its neighbors, we hear barely a word from Algeria. As if this were not a country in need of reform, not a land brimming with restless youth, not a society managed for two generations by a single party working closely with military officers.

If there is a swath of injustice, despair and mismanagement over which the spring of democracy is sweeping, surely Algeria lies in its path.

The marginalization of Algeria, its virtual blackout by international media surely warrants deeper interest.  By the standards of what is transpiring in nearby states, Algeria is suspiciously quiet. The unrest that erupted in Tunisia 20 months ago is on Algeria’s doorstep. So, why do we hear little from Algeria’s 34 million inhabitants?

How many know about the rash of protests inside Algeria at the time Tunisia erupted? Do we know that in May the country held nationwide parliamentary elections which only extended the 50 year rule of the FLN party? How about Algeria’s president amending the constitution to extend his rule to a third term?

Algerians characterize their nation as “a rich country of poor people”. Many economic indices would place most Algerians near Egyptians and Yemenis. Yes, while Algeria enjoys huge revenues from fossil fuel sales, its economy bears no resemblance to those ‘oil rich’ Arab states at the far perimeter of the Middle East.  

I spent two years in Algeria, a place few journalists can visit and tourists and scholars avoid. My residence and wide access there allowed me to understand the endemic corruption and hopelessness, the mismanagement, the limits of the press, the supremacy of Algeria’s military. I saw how many of its professionals are lured away by French companies; I learned about thousands of young Algerians risking their lives to escape by boat across the Mediterranean, with many perishing at sea.

Middle East experts may argue that Algeria is better off than countries where the USA, UK and UN have signaled a regime change is overdue. By many standards, I suggest, conditions in Algeria are worse.

Why is this country sidelined?

Algeria’s quiescence may be the result of some special agreement with the ‘powers’ deciding who falls and who survives. Algeria is not known as a friend of the US; it would also not appear to be allied with France, given its hard fought war to rid itself of French occupation. In actual fact, Algeria’s interests are deeply tied to these powers, neither of which would welcome instability—i.e. revolution-- there.  

First Algeria is a major energy supplier to Europe and to the US. It is a huge market for French consumer goods, from essential foods to pharmaceuticals. Algeria has also emerged as a major partner with Europe and the USA in their anti-terrorist policy in Africa; ties between that nation’s security services and military and the Pentagon grow year by year.

To understand the most important of Algeria’s assets for the West, look at a map. Algeria is an enormous, strategically placed country. Its land mass reaches deep into Africa absorbing much of the Sahel, the sparsely inhabited Sahara, bordering Morocco, Mauritania, Mali, Tunisia, Libya, and Niger. Here, some say, al-Qaeda terrorists and other hostile threats can hide and prepare future attacks. This is also where AFRICOM, the American military mission for Africa, wants to be.

Until now, all African nations gave a firm “No” to US requests to place AFRICOM on their territory. But with new instabilities created by the Arab Spring and the revolt in northern Mali, American military interest in the area is more urgent. The argument for AFRICOM may be gaining acceptance, and Algeria could well be the best candidate to facilitate AFRICOM.

Under these circumstances, why would Washington care about the civil rights and dignity of Algerians any more than it does for Saudi Arabians?

This brief commentary is not about whether an Algerian revolution is overdue. It is simply to point out how Western ‘interests’ play a vital role in the now misnomered Arab Spring. Moreover, independent of government agendas, Algeria and its people are worth our attention.

[ Algeria Left Out of Arabs' Spring ]

Who killed Anthony Shadid?

July 03, 2012

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Our celebrated, dedicated, everything-to-live-for journalist died suddenly, and inexplicably, on February 16. We mourned one of our own; we grieved for his young family. His illustrious employer, the New York Times, spoke of Shadid’s brilliance and of the deep loss to American journalism.

Shadid was first reported to have died from an asthma attack on the border of Syria and Turkey. He was ‘in the field’, faithfully searching for truths in his over-the-top mission as a Middle East correspondent. The asthma was a condition he had lived with since his youth.

How ironic. It was a childhood asthma that took him, not a rebel bullet or a land mine planted in those hazardous border zones.

That’s what we thought. That is: this is the story the world was told. One could almost fault Shadid for carelessness; had this veteran reporter, famous for his work in conflict zones, not known how to handle a chronic ailment?

The reality of Shadid’s death is rather different from the official version, it seems.  Although Shadid’s family has yet to receive an autopsy report—that in itself might arouse suspicion—they believe Anthony died from a heart attack.

How could this happen?

Well, according to a Shadid family member, himself a doctor, just before his death, Shadid and his New York Times editors had heated arguments by phone. Following that altercation, the doctor says, Shadid called his wife to warn her that if he died, responsibility lay with the NYT.

It seems Shadid set out for Syria furious with poor arrangements the Times made for his entry into the country to cover the conflict there. Shadid charged that the Times’ facilities for a covert entry from Turkey were inadequate; nevertheless his New York bosses insisted Shadid make the journey. Shadid complained to editors that he was inadequately equipped for the foray. Then, rather than enter by motorcycle as first arranged, he was escorted in by a smugglers who were at the same time transporting crates of guns for rebels inside Syria.  We also learn that after Shadid’s kidnapping experience in Libya 11 months earlier, he had received no counseling for that trauma.  

These revelations came to light a week ago, when Edward Shadid, a medical doctor and cousin of the journalist, was addressing a national gathering of Arab Americans. He emphatically says it is not true that Shadid suffered an asthma attack and was carried out heroically by a fellow NYT colleague, a photographer, as the Times had reported. He also reports the fierce quarrel between Shadid and his employer before he set out across the border .

Faced with these charges, the NYT is apparently sticking by its story; it denies any dispute with Shadid or that it pressured the journalist. Lena Badr, Shadid’s wife, declines to join the family campaign to investigate exactly what happened. (She herself is a Times reporter.)

Finally, given recent testimony from senior British journalist Alex Thomson, it is not impossible that Shadid was somehow entrapped in a situation similar to what Thomson experienced in Syria. Travelling with Syrian rebels, Thomson concluded, he was led into an ambush, barely escaping with his life. He suggests this tactic could have been part of the media war waged against Syria since, he posits, a journalist’s death would be blamed on Assad forces and thereby strengthen the hand of foreign governments hostile to the Syrian regime.

So where is that NYT photographer who accompanied Shadid? Surely he can clear things up.

[ Who killed Anthony Shadid? ]

Where Do All The Flowers Go?

June 15, 2012

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

"Are you the journalist who visited our class at Al-Aquida?” she asked me.

The inquiry came from a grown woman I did not know. We were attending our national conference of Arab American Writers ( so I assumed she had an interest in literature penned by our talented community in the US.

Unable to recognize the woman, yet aware of how eagerly she was awaiting my reply, I turned my gaze to her name tag-- not the family name but her personal name. “Lamia”. This popular Iraqi name for girls began to stir my memory.

On my first visit to Iraq gathering material for an article on women’s outstanding role in that country’s public life and their advances in education, I visited a girls’ school in central Baghdad. Yes, it was Al-Aquida. And Lamia had been a 12 or 13 year old student then. 

How well I remember the encounter: the proud headmistress; crowds of self-assured girls speaking fluently in English; the brightly lit orderly computer room; the expansive tree-lined yard; a row of arches supporting the portico that extended around three sides of the school building.

Lamia and a number her schoolmates spoke with me in 1990. They were so hopeful.

The following year, I returned to Iraq and I revisited al-Aquida. This time things were different. Very different.  The American-engineered and policed UN sanctions regime—a brutal global embargo against 20 million people that would go on for 13 murderous years—had begun. Although the blockade had been in effect only seven months at that time, life for Iraqis was already transformed. Added to the blockade was a military defeat, the routing of Iraqi troops from Kuwait, and 42 uninterrupted days of bombing across the entire country. It was a well planned US-led campaign to slowly crush Iraq and reverse its development.

The nation gradually, painfully, unraveled, taking millions with it. Perhaps 2 million perished; an estimated 4 million became refugees; most of those who remained in the country silently sank into penury. That was before the 2003 American invasion that finally dislodged Baath rule, set off waves of sectarian strife and destroyed what infrastructure and pride the Iraqis had managed to maintain during the debilitating embargo. (What figures we read of the deaths, destruction and flight to safety of others are those calculated only since 2003.)

On my second visit to Al-Aquida in 1991, no one in Iraq knew what the US plan for the country was. But the schoolgirls’ shock, anger, and wounded pride surely captured the sentiments of most Iraqis at the time. I wove those youngsters’ comments into an audio documentary: “Iraq; How Can I Forget?” which I then produced for radio broadcast. In those children’s voices, you may begin to grasp their poignant, young experiences. Take a moment to listen to that program; you can download it from our webpage:

More extensive details of that vicious UN blockade are recorded in “Swimming Up The Tigris: Real Life Encounters in Iraq”. Finally published in 2007 from University Press of Florida, my account is one of a mere handful of English language sources documenting that overlooked and shameful period of world history.

Lamia told me that she and her family left Iraq only in 2006. I don’t know how they managed to remain in their homeland for that length of time and what finally pressed them to leave and to begin a new life elsewhere. It is bound to be a harrowing tale of overcoming obstacles few others can even begin to imagine.   

As a student of literature, Lamia will surely acquire the tools and inspiration to tell us that history. Whether in memoir, film, music or in fiction, the world, especially our younger citizens, need to hear Iraqis’ own testimonies.

Thankfully perhaps, I won’t be around when my once young, bright Syrian friends turn up somewhere else in the world to recall our joyful yet naïve early meetings together in Damascus.

[ Where Do All The Flowers Go? ]

Ghazi Khankan (1934-2012) and the 64th anniversary of the Nakba

May 14, 2012

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

What enables a citizen to work for peace and justice day after day, year after year… for three generations? Some answers can be found in the life of Ghazi Khankan. Our American-New York brother died suddenly two weeks ago, Khankan’s resolute manner exemplifies the enduring struggle and demonstrates the finest qualities of a long-distance runner in this demanding phase of our US history.

The Zionist undermining of all efforts at peace pervades the US culture, a sinister, energetic shadow of its brutish force across Arab and Muslim lands themselves. Since 1967 when voices swelled in opposition to Zionist expansion into Palestinian lands and homes, Arabs in this country organized, campaigned, wrote, spoke and marched to expose the myths and present the realities-- to speak truth to power. Most eloquently expressed by our scholar Edward Said, the struggle was implemented and paid for by many, many lesser known. There are those whose lives were sacrificed, others whose health and family were the price, and countless anonymous, tireless activists whose livelihoods were thwarted. 

Forces set against Palestine merged into assaults on Bosnians, Chechens, Iraqis, and became a confrontation that found its fullest, ugliest expression against what seemed an assault against all Muslim peoples and our faith itself.  

One who defended Palestinian rights in the early 1960s and stayed faithful up to his last breath was Ghazi Khankan. From the 1964 World Fair in New York when Khankan joined with MT Mehdi in a campaign to defend a mural of Palestinian history at the exhibition’s Jordan pavilion, he was there—daily-- trying to educate, to persuade, to join, to reason, to connect. From that fight for Palestinian rights Khankan moved to a career embracing African American Muslim leadership. He went on to challenge falsehoods in US media, to correct the myths, to inter-faith dialogue, to champion Muslim American rights.

Following his sudden death, testimonials to Ghazi Khankan’s integrity and leadership broadcast across the internet. Countless friends and colleagues recalled his work with MT Mehdi, another noble leader of these decades-long struggles. These men’s persistence, their intellect and humor, and their enduring belief in justice were remembered in testimonial after testimonial. They launched the Eid stamp, not a minor matter in the US. Another institution they initiated was the Star and Crescent in public places, a symbol of Muslim American presence alongside other American faiths. When inter-faith dialogue became a community educational strategy, Ghazi was at its center. Long before the dreadful watershed events of September 2001, Khankan was there-- tireless, patient, well-informed, moving forward without rancor, whether leading demonstrations on Fifth Avenue, conducting inter-faith matrimonials or teaching Arabic.

Khankan, despite a lifetime commitment to Palestinian sovereignty was not of Palestinian origin but Syrian. After graduating from the Lysee Francais in Aleppo, he went to AUB in Beirut, then UCLA in Los Angeles. Khankan remained in the US, settling in New York with his wife Tanya and together they raised their children Dhalia and Yahya.

See the May Day broadcast on WBAI Radio N.Y., May 1, 2012. Now ‘podcast’--

[ Ghazi Khankan (1934-2012) and the 64th anniversary of the Nakba ]

May 29, 2012 Memorial Day: Remembering the “Nakba”

April 29, 2012

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Memorial day. Radio Tahrir marks the 64th year of the “Nakba”, Palestinians expulsion from their lands in 1948. Our two hour special on WBAI radio features two outstanding interviews from our 22-year audio archive.

First is Intissar Al-Wazir Um Jihad in 1990 in Ramallah speaking about early Palestinian strategies--at that time called “The Intifadah”--  to regain their rights and return to their lands, and the early career of Abu Jihad, assassinated in 1988.

 Accompanying this is our interview with Dr. Adel Samara, Marxist writer and commentator, discussing the flawed Oslo Accord with the sabotaging of the Palestinian economy and general deterioration of Palestinian rights within a year of the much celebrated treaty. This audio, produced exclusively for WBAI audiences, includes contemporary Palestinian poetry.

With this audio CD, we offer a copy of the banned DVD “Valentino’s Ghost: the Politics of Images” by director W Singh. A highly sophisticated 90 minute documentary featuring some of the best informed people on Middle East history and the Nakba, “Valentino’s Ghost” was produced for a major American TV network but withdrawn because of objections raised by Zionist parties about its honest depiction of Palestinian and Israeli history.

Ideal as a gift to your school, college and community radio. Copies can be obtained with a pledge to WBAI, listener-sponsored free speech radio in NY (www. Ask for the May 15 “Nakba Special”.

Watch for upcoming special when our regular broadcasts resume on June 5; special guests in June include Egypt’s Bassim Youssef, and Naif Al-Mutawa creator of “The 99”.

[ May 29, 2012 Memorial Day: Remembering the “Nakba” ]

Who Says Culture is Not Political? Take the Case of Turkey

April 20, 2012

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

A striking example of culture serving a political position is Turkey today. Take a look. Before Turkey joined in the NATO campaign for regime change in Libya, the US public was regularly reminded of President Erdogan’s rude treatment of the Israeli president, and Ankara’s daring warnings to Israel. Reference to Turkish president Recep Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party was usually prefaced with the US-pejorative label --‘islamist’.

 Two years ago, when Turkey partnered with Brazil to bring about a promising agreement with Iran regarding pulling back on its nuclear program, the plan was swiftly rejected by USA and its allies. Then Turkey was unfavorably featured in the West for its support of Palestinians’ right of self-determination.

Today all that has changed.

Reference to any Islamic character in the JD Party is now whited-out. Have you noticed how many high profile international policy conferences are now taking place in Turkey?

 Turkey is ‘in’.

And culture? Well to confirm this new face of Turkey, in case you say you don’t follow international affairs, look at a forthcoming film festival and newly announced student exchange program. For the first time since I can remember, I find announcements inviting us to join a summer exchange program in Turkey. It’s sponsored by something called, appropriately, International Program for Democracy and Peace-- likely a US-government funded project.  

What awakened me to the energy going into a makeover of Turkey’s image here is a forthcoming film festival in New York. April 27 to May 10, our global media center—New York-- will treat us to festival unmatched in its scale—screening 29 films by Turkish directors.

Many of these films are co-produced in Germany and elsewhere in Europe where a large community of creative Turks reside and where ample funding is available. Turkey itself is home to a productive film industry tapping abundant Turkish talent, from writers to directors and actors. In Europe Turkish talent is already well regarded. But the industry made little impact in the US, even among the so-called intellectual elite.

This will change, in part due to the coming film festival.

One can only explain the lavishness of NY’s Lincoln Center project on Turkish films with a specific aim to help plant Turkey on American consciousness as a place of creativity and modernity. Our Turkish friends are ‘good guys’ now.

Turkey attracts some American tourists of course, but that’s of a different order. Boat rides on the Bosporus, photos in front of Sultan Ahmed Mosque and purchases of ceramic tiles and rugs do not change American acceptance of a country the way that films can, and do.

Twenty-nine films, all from one country! At the celebrated Lincoln Center in New York! This is not a marginal event. And it will surely be the launch of a wider campaign to cleanse our general image of Turkey, its perceived ‘islamist’ leaning, and its pro-Palestinian policy. As the program director announced of the event “an extraordinarily rich cinematic tradition that, despite the growing importance of that country on the world stage, has remained largely unknown to even the most dedicated American film goers.  “despite”? - well they are going to fix that.

Don’t get me wrong about these films and Turkish talent. I am on record for my devotion and admiration for Turkey’s TV dramas, translated into Arabic and distributed worldwide where the industry has spawned a new emotional attachment of Arab peoples to Turkey. (We discussed this on Radio Tahrir Jan. 31st 2012; see

Two years ago a friend familiar with Turkey’s TV industry informed me that the huge promotion given to Turkish productions over Arabic language networks was not accidental; he suggested it was in fact engineered to ‘penetrate’ the Arab consciousness—in the service of a wider political agenda. My associates in Syria, witnessing how Turkey has gone from ‘special friend’ to foe in a matter of months, charge their neighbor with using Syria to break into the entire Arab market and into its diplomatic circles. Indeed we now find Turkey at the table of important Arab League and other regional policy meetings regarding Syria and Libya. Yet not at the Palestine peace table, we note.

So go to the festival. Appreciate Turkish talent. Turkish filmmakers and writers are in the forefront of raising important social questions about justice and values across the Middle Eastern. In my opinion, the themes of their films express genuine and worthy social and ethical statements. From Turkish productions I’ve viewed in the past 4 years, I consider they are equal to and often surpass the output and quality of the Arab film industry.

All I am saying here is: let’s not pretend these films and festivals and the rapid spread of Turkish TV into Arab households is not part of Turkey’s new favorable position vis-a-vis the current US, European and Gulf Cooperation Council political agenda for the area.


[ Who Says Culture is Not Political? Take the Case of Turkey ]

Hana Shalabi Forcibly Exiled to Gaza

April 02, 2012

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

It’s hard for normal people to envisage others seated around a table thinking up punishments-- really torture. Imagine a doctor, a lawyer, a prison guard along with a foreign affairs official seated in a well-furnished ministry office or at a Tel Aviv restaurant deciding how to deal with a recalcitrant woman on hunger strike to protest her wrongful imprisonment.

In the end it seems Israel relented; a ‘humane’ solution was found:—it would discharge the woman from prison, from her detention without charge.  Humdulallah.

But the story does not end here. Yes, Israel did indeed release Hana Shalabi on the 43rd day of her hunger strike. But did it allow the emaciated, frail woman to return to her home and family to be nurtured and healed after her ordeal?

No. She is sent from prison into a forced exile to Gaza. This, knowing her home and family are in the West Bank. She is to remain in Gaza by force,  for 3 years, they announced.

What is the message Israel is giving the world with this decision? Compassion? Their recognition that the woman’s detention was illegal? Deterrence? Will Gaza’s seaside climate be more restorative?

Some of us may recall that almost 20 years ago, in December 1992 Israel applied its regular policy of forced exile in a particularly dramatic incident. It sent 415 Palestinian men it suspected as Islamists across the border to Lebanon. The banished men remained in a desolate ‘Israeli-controlled security zone’ in Southern Lebanon for several months during the cold winter season. Nothing did more to win admiration for the then fledgling little known "Hamas" group. One newspaper opined at the time: “The longer this impasse continues, the greater the publicity given to the deportees, and the more likely that they will be seen as heroes and martyrs, which is definitely not what Israel intended.”

I personally cannot fathom Israeli intentions, neither in 1992 nor now.

[ Hana Shalabi Forcibly Exiled to Gaza ]

Violence is As American As Cherry Pie

March 14, 2012

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Cherry Pie is a much loved American dessert. Cherry Pie for most Americans conjures up warm feelings of a bountiful family dinner topped off with a slice of pie oozing red cherry syrup crowned with a scoop of ice cream.

Thus the poignancy of the maxim--“Violence is As American As Cherry Pie”.

Some of us will remember and will understand this adage. This was H Rap Brown’s  (Jamil Abdallah Al-Amin) cogent summation of American culture 45 years ago.

I remember it often--too often, reading the daily news.

Today ‘Violence is as American as Cherry Pie’ describes the massacre of 16 Afghans by an American serving his great superpower nation abroad. Yesterday it was a knife attack at a employment center, the day before that a shooting at a college, before that a bombing of shepherd boys in a far away mountainside, and before that US drone attacks on another foreign mountainside, then shootings in a neighborhood home in Ohio, a school, a college, a military base, a courtroom. It goes on and on, and on, daily in the US and wherever US military personnel and their killing machines are at work, “protecting” America and Americans across the world.

The toll escapes us, as we move swiftly from headline to headline.  

H. Rap Brown was Black Panther leader and chair of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s. An articulate outspoken critic of American culture, he eventually became Jamil Al-Amin, settling in Atlanta Georgia. There he devoted himself to Islam and community service “reforming people’s lives and improving the community through this Divine program.”  (In 2000, al-Amin was sent to prison for a murder for which many believe he was falsely accused. H Rap Brown’s saying came back to claim him as it continues to take so many of our Black American leaders.

(Many maintain Al-Amin is a political prisoner whose real crime was “guiding others to Islam”—In May 2004, after Iraq’s Abu Graib prison revelations, in a published message to the public Al-Amin writes “mistreatment in Iraqi prisons is only the tip of the iceberg and that Muslims in prisons inside the US ‘have been similarly trampled’. He emphasized that such misbehavior must be put within its context: It is an attempt to break Muslims, to strip them of their humanity and to trash their identity, dignity and self-respect.

Media headlines this week pass over the violence in neighborhoods across the US to tell us of a deranged soldier- a lone gunman—as if this soldier himself is a victim of the war he served so gallantly. The murder of Afghans that he reportedly single-handedly carried is becoming a story of the mental problems experienced by our trained professional killers and a debate about when and how the US should leave Afghanistan.

Would that this event is understood as a ‘condition’ of American culture: “As American as Cherry Pie”. The problem is not in an army unit gone mad or in a military occupation. It lies deep within US culture—the games children play, the language they use, the design of their cars, the books they read and the songs they sing.

Across the world, people understand this. Those biting into their cherry pie or watching the Baghdad sky “light up like a Christmas tree” cannot, alas.


[ Violence is As American As Cherry Pie ]

Anthony Shadid 1968-2012

March 01, 2012

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

In a new documentary film you are unlikely to see, Anthony Shadid, our departed brother, spoke with a compassion and honesty that tell us something about the man, as a journalist and as an Arab. Of course Shadid’s writings offer ample testimony of his outstanding character. But in this 75 second clip, transcribed here from the film, you witness another example of the person Shadid was.

In one passage in the documentary, Shadid is trying to help us better understand the Arab peoples:

“The Arab world”, Shadid begins, “has been most resistant to colonialism of any region in the world….” Then… “I was in Cairo after 9/11 and… let me put this the right way… whatever injustice 9/11 might have been…ummm ….I want to be really careful with this” (he hesitates for a full 14 seconds) then continues cautiously, “I think there was a notion, maybe, in Cairo-- I’m not saying it’s right or wrong—but I think there was a notion in Cairo that the injustice that is such a part of the landscape in the Middle East, Americans had finally glimpsed the same injustice I think Arabs feel they have felt for a generation or more at this point.”

Shahid knew he was broaching a taboo subject—any hint of anyone’s endorsement of the 9/11 strike on the USA. Yet he had the courage to say what he did, with those pauses in his statement surely revealing a man of tenderness and integrity.


Valentino’s Ghosts, the documentary film where Anthony is speaking, examines how Arabs are portrayed in the West from the early 20th century to the present. A sympathetic, intelligent survey of high filmic and scholarly quality, Valentino’s Ghosts was commissioned for distribution through a major US television network. But you won’t be able to see Valentino’s Ghosts. The network cancelled it, not for what Shadid opines but because it offers certain truths about Palestine and Israel’s history. Due to be screened nationwide this winter, the film was abruptly withdrawn because of its unfavorable portrayal of Israel, I am told.


I personally was in touch with Anthony over a decade ago, just before he was to make his first visit to Syria. I had approached him with an invitation to our board of directors for The Radius of Arab American Writers when I was its director. Anthony wanted to support our work but was about to depart on an extended overseas assignment. Indeed, soon afterwards he began his reporting on the US’s invasion and occupation of Iraq. His writing was of course exceptional and earned him two Pulitzer awards (2004 and 2010).

In all his work Shadid unarguably demonstrates his mettle in working in the complex machinations of the Arab World and his sympathies there, telling stories all of us we needed to know, at the same time keeping free of Zionist pressures that besiege and destroy so many fine academics and writers.

Although Shadid didn’t belong to any Arab journalists’ associations I know of, he doubtless inspired many of us to seek careers in journalism. He would be proud of those who follow him into the profession. Now, after his loss to us, many more young Arabs may become determined to carry on his legacy as frontline journalists and writers.

 Shadid’s has left us an autobiography, House of Stone. Due for release soon, it is certain to be another milestone. It’s a story of his return to his ancestral village in Lebanon, not to visit but to rebuild and to live, demonstrating his belief in the Arab homeland. Another example of his exceptionality.

How ironic that this journalist perished from a childhood disease, asthma. Although he spent his life covering the human side of wars our people live inside and where they  too die from common illnesses. Then there is always the danger of being felled by bullets when choosing to work in our eternal conflict zone.

Yet, we face a mean political foe as well. One wonders: had Shahid remained in this region and continued to excel, would he fall prey to the ideological forces that took out many of our finest reporters, among the most recent Helen Thomas and Olivia Nasr?

My Allah guide his soul. Shahid will live on among us in many ways.


[ Anthony Shadid 1968-2012 ]

Jafar Panahi's "This is Not A Film"

February 23, 2012

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“This is Not A Film” is a courageous, almost cunning, sometimes humorous document by Jafar Panahi, a man who cannot be silenced. Panahi is a well known and accomplished Iranian filmmaker and, we learn in this production, an irrepressible character.

Foolishly the Iranian government arrested him and banned him from producing further films. Thus the tile of this production.  on his work. (Panahi has avoided jail, for now, but lives in virtual house arrest, unable to do what he most loves—make films. But that doesn’t stop him from holding a camera.) With his friend and co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, from within his living room, Panahi has produced something of a masterpiece in my opinion.

I have just previewed a newly released video documentary of this man’s modest attempt to survive as an artist. With his cell phone video and a professional camera sitting on a table in his apartment, Panahi shows us his present predicament. He informs us of his punishment, demonstrates his essence as a filmmaker, quietly assuring us of his indefatigable spirit.

Seeing Panahi speaking by phone to his attorney we learn the status of his legal case. Watching him read and explain a script to visiting colleague Mirtahmasb (holding the camera), we feel his skill and passion as a film-maker. Following him, camera-in-his-hand, we meet his neighbors, feel his humanity, and admire his ability to make the most mundane encounter into a filmic delight. We sit with Panahi in his living-room, reviewing two of his earlier films. It’s all there--his past, his present and his future. (That is to say, future  success in resuming his work.).  Far from feeling pity or anger about Panahi’s political plight, we are reassured that this spirit and talent cannot be stifled.

This autobiographical document demonstrates the depth of this artist’s skill at capturing the candid moment, as he did in the wonderful early film “Mirror”. There, as a young director, Panahi follows the little girl actress who abruptly decides she no longer wants to act. She leaves the set (a city bus) and abandons the film-crew to make her way home alone by foot. Panahi seizes the moment and with camera, follows the child clandestinely through Tehran’s city streets. Her microphone still intact, we hear her candid dialogue with people she encounters as she tries to find her house. That simple episode, Panahi made into an extraordinary film. (Look for it.) And Panahi’s latest document –not a film—captures this artist’s same sensibility.

How much editing was done on this new ‘document’ we do not know. The story seems to take place within a single day, beginning with his breakfast and ending with his night shots of Tehran’s New Year fireworks from his balcony. Jafar Panahi is just shooting whatever is around him. But being a master of the unrehearsed unplanned moment, he transforms it into art.

As with so many Middle Eastern stories, this is slow moving. And, as often happens when an artist faces government censorship, US press reviews of “This is Not A Film” overemphasize hardships confronting foreign directors. I fear that in a country, in this case Iran which most Americans view so negatively, many of those  attending the showing will find in it yet another reason they would be happy to see this country, one that has produced so many fine filmmakers, attacked by US bombers. One hopes theater goers will take the time to reflect on the creative, deeply Iranian spirit exhibited in this document.

Still, one cannot help deny the reality of Panahi’s situation. After all, he purposefully produced this to inform the international community about his political condition. If I were on the Iranian film board censorship panel, I would be proud of him.

The film opens to its US theatrical premier at New York City’s Film Forum February 29th.


[ Jafar Panahi's "This is Not A Film" ]

Human Rights Fueling War

February 03, 2012

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Human Rights activists and their media friends seem shocked by revelations that Libyan rebel forces are torturing detainees in Libya.

Why? In a recent “Salon’ opinion article (The Human Rights ‘Success’ in Libya; Glen Greenwald reviews how invasions “… are almost always sold by appeal to human rights concerns”. And they do not stop. Greenwald describes how such abuses become part and parcel of a military campaign aimed to topple a ‘brutal’ leader. Anything they execute is justified by that heroic shared goal, even though those western backers themselves conveniently escape any association or responsibility with such abuses.

What we have recently been told about the behavior of Libyan forces towards the people they have captured —first migrant workers they rounded up, then the former regime supporters, and now, detained Libyans during and following the invasion-- should come as no surprise. Some may have gloated over the way the former Libya president was treated by his captors. There were few sympathizers for Gaddafi and no critics of the rebels’ method of meting out that piece of justice. Yet, surely this behavior was systematic of a savagery encouraged by their western supporters who themselves were engaged in what is only later found to be ‘indiscriminate killings’ during their much celebrated smart-bombing of Libya. The murders and abuse by Libyan ground forces was inarguably an expression ‘license to kill’ granted to the heroic rebels by their partners in the air.

In my blog of November 2, 2011 ( I expressed by disgust and shame over the license accorded Libyan ‘rebels’-- allies of our esteemed NATO bombers. Only now, conveniently, we hear evidence that suggests that the widely publicized attack on Moammar Gaddafi may not have been so unique an occurrence.

In his January 27 article in Salon, Greenwald compares celebratory claims made by the invaders of Iraq in 2003 with a 2011 report that “Iraq is quickly slipping back into authoritarianism as its security forces abuse protesters, harass journalists, and torture detainees”, and how Iraq is “becoming a budding police state”. Greenwald concludes “Ironically, those who are the loudest advocates for these wars and then prematurely celebrate the outcome (and themselves) bear significant responsibility for these subsequent abuses: by telling the world that the invasion was a success, it causes the aftermath — the most important part — to be neglected. There is nothing noble about invading and bombing a country into regime change”, he continues, “if what one ushers in is mass instability along with tyranny and abuse by a different regime: typically one that is much more sympathetic to the invading regime-changers.”  But, again, human righters win the day.

As righteous western leaders, their regional lackeys, and human rights documenters supply us with a steady account of human rights abuses in other ‘unpopular’ regimes in support of their selective ‘Arab Spring’ campaign, they are preparing us, the public, for their next noble adventure. All the good people of Europe and America, desperate to share their way of life and their subservience to Israel, ostensibly deeply sensitive to the suffering of Arab sisters and brothers, are ready to sanction yet another war.

Forget about the catastrophe and the abuses that will inevitably follow. We are a naïve, acquiescent and complicit  public.

[ Human Rights Fueling War ]

“Lost in Damascus—at year’s end”

January 02, 2012

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Mass arrests, fuel shortages, power cuts; and now: suicide bombings! Has Damascus reached a point of no return?

It took a long time coming, for a place renowned as the world’s oldest continually inhabited city. But by 2010  Damascus was once again an international crossroads. On my visit barely a year ago, foreigners moved through every corner of the city—the cobbled quarters of Bab Touma, the open avenue of Mezza, the clustered neighborhood stretching up Muhajirin onto Damascus mountain.

Thousands of young idealists crowded classes at the city’s renowned language institutes and Islamic academies, and huddled with Qur’anic teachers. As young as 16, joining others into their 60s, they came from Japan, Malaysia, Korea, Turkey, Italy and Russia, from across Europe in fact. Even an occasional American and Australian too.

Syrian Arabic had become the preferred form of Arabic language instruction and Damascus boasted the best institutes that by now had more students than they could handle.

Besides the students, hopeful travel agents foresaw a soaring future in tourism; expatiates were moving into the capital’s burgeoning private sector; there were now good schools for their Brazilian, Canadian and French-born children. Women and men who had married Syrians abroad were settling here. Syrian children from California and Sussex were with grandparents in Syria for the summer. Amended laws regarding banking and military service attracted those it had once send away cursing the country. Opportunities in Syria seemed unlimited… if you had a foreign bank account, parents with a spacious apartment, a viable business partner, or a study grant.

Those thousands of young people here last year reminded me of Kathmandu in the 1970s. Huddling in street cafes, they offer advice on visa extensions, on cheap rooms in quaint stone houses, ice cream specialties, cheap authentic eateries, and bus schedules to enchanting ancient Christian monasteries in the hills and roman ruins across the desert.

On weekends, many of these students fled the capital to spend a night in Aleppo, or the desert city of Tadmoor. A Danish lad grabbed his knapsack and joined his girlfriend from Moscow for a weekend in Beirut. (They could be back for their university classes by Sunday.) Bruce, from Virginia, never hid his history as a U.S. marine in Iraq before he began language studies here; he was a hard worker in class, his pleasures confined to weekend cruising bars and discos they were open until two a.m. in the old city.

Local youths mingled freely with foreign students and tourists -- in the universities, in cafes and discos. Fear of shared secrets seemed absent. Indeed Syrian lads in particular roamed the campus and cafes in search of work as language tutors, an occasional lucky one finding a European girlfriend among them, even a fiancé. 

The pleasures of restaurants and discos were not limited to foreigners, for by this time, the children of an expanding middleclass could afford an occasional night out. Thursday evenings, thousands crowded into the old city.

Not to forget the tourists. Jumbo buses carried them from city to city, and maneuvered the narrow lanes of the old town. They filled charming hotels—European alongside Arabs from Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Kuwait whose favorite summer vacation spot was Syria, with its open, tolerant atmosphere.

Damascus’ many centers of art, music and theater were supplemented by the foreign embassies. From Pakistani to Spanish, Russian, British and American, they ran language classes for Syrians, and schools for the children of expatriates and wealthy locals. Most notably the embassies sponsored cultural events. A Spanish theater group this week, a film festival at the Dutch cultural center, a jazz band, an art exhibition. They featured Syrians as well as their own artists. There was plenty to enrich one’s creative life in the city every evening and in the daytime too.

That’s all in the past. Many embassies have closed. Hardly a foreign-sponsored event can be found now; language classes at culture centers have halted. Graduate students and unemployed actors who depended on part-time work tutoring foreign students are miserable; they miss these stipends and their foreign peers who made their lives bearable and hopeful.

On the surface, Damascus may appear normal. But say the young, and their parents: “We just don’t feel like going out now”; “We stay at home”; “We watch news, share rumors about roundups and checkpoints, search for gaz tanks and diesel fuel for winter”; “We phone relatives in besieged cities”;  “We escape into the glamorous Turkish TV dramas.”

Damascus has become a city of endless rallies, widely distributed by state TV. One resident says, “We show the world we are one, that we are strong”; another admits “We go to the rallies not only to defend our nation, but to burn off nervous energy”, and others who became protestors “because I was pulled from a bus and jailed for 40 days… for doing nothing”.

Everyone is nervous nowadays, seeing the news, watching friends depart, hearing nothing from detained relatives. Damascus is today a weary city..waiting for no one is sure what… and when.


[ “Lost in Damascus—at year’s end” ]

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quoting Poet Alexander Pope.

Ali Mazrui, professor of African Studies

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