Blog Archive – 2017
- April 26, 2017
“Well, sometimes the impossible takes a little longer”, remarked Lynne Stewart, December 31, 2014, on her arrival in New York, released from federal prison in Texas, after a vigorous family and internationally driven campaign on her behalf. (She was suffering from advanced cancer.)
Stewart lived three more years, nearby her family, always with a smile for visitors. This was the woman who dared this mild rebuke to her sentencing judge: “I do not intend to go gentle into that good night” she told him.
Last Saturday, almost 500 friends and admirers of the brave lawyer who had the courage to challenge U.S. Homeland’s chief John Ashcroft fifteen years ago, gathered to celebrate a remarkable and honorable life.
April 22nd, the same day when tens of thousands were gathering in cities across the country to support our scientific community under threat by Trump administration budget cuts, one is struck by the contrast with those memorializing this “people’s lawyer”.
That modest assembly in a quiet corner of New York, the city where she grew up and where Stewart worked all her life, represented a revolutionary era whose very place in U.S. history is dangerously marginal. Moreover, that history is barely recognized by the rather belated post-November 8th arousal—the new liberal movement-- now gathering with its multitude of committees, mass parades and lefty celebrity speeches: part of Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution. Fine. But a far cry from what Lynne Stewart’s celebrants represent.
Unarguably America needs organized massive resistance to threats posed by the current administration; push back is essential on all fronts: healthcare, the arts, environmental protections, bank regulation, civic rights, and on and on. One hopes that the thousands of communities mobilizing nationwide, from villages to city centers and suburbs will-- after the committees are settled, the speeches made, the funds raised, the petitions signed-- act. They have organizing tools unavailable in past revolutions. Digital platforms flowing into every hand can inform with virtual velocity; Google maps assure you that your small effort is fed into a nationwide net of tens of thousands; you are not alone. Leaders can materialize in weeks with Twitter and Facebook skills at their command, cameras everywhere recording their emergence. Film celebrities join in, drawing even greater numbers to the effort. These are essentially what we have, and they may indeed be what are appropriate at a time when representatives of our police state are more numerous and more heavily armed, endowed with more authority and less tolerance.
Those gathered to remember Lynne Stewart last week were authentic, tried revolutionaries: poets Nat Turner and Amina Baraka; former political prisoners, attorneys who had stepped forward to defend unpopular characters, teachers, organizers in solidarity with Cuba and Palestinian statehood from the 1960s to today; Vietnam war veterans and the unjustly imprisoned; defiant elected representatives from New Jersey and Brooklyn; the journalist and theologian Chris Hedges who refuses to join the liberal voice that claims it is the rightful alternative to the Republican party.
Each woman and man reminded us what makes a revolution. Each invoked the grass roots experience of Stewart, a librarian and teacher who turned to law in order to fight injustices she witnessed in the lives of her students. Eventually she took on the case of Muslims wrongly accused in the early 1990s when the government was using secret evidence to illegally charge and convict. Where other attorneys shied away from representing terror suspects, Lynne Stewart remained committed. There was some success when the government was eventually prevented from further use of secret evidence.
Then came the 9/11 attacks, and everything changed. Stewart insisted on defending attorney-client privilege (a right the government suspended). She had to be stopped. And they put Stewart, at the age of 73, in jail to do so.
As Brooklyn assemblyman Charles Barron reminded us on Saturday, “Lynne was a sweet person.” Even as she presented her cases and spoke to the media, she was always mild and respectful, always witty and bright-eyed. It’s not simply that she’s missed. We need to believe others as courageous and well equipped as Stewart was can come to our aid today. END
Barbara Nimri Aziz is an anthropologist and radio producer in New York. She is a longtime associate of Lynne Stewart, interviewing her during her fight against government use of secret evidence against her clients during the 1990s, then during Stewart’s fight against the department of justice attack on lawyer-client privacy rights, and finally in the campaign led by her husband and comrade, Ralph Poynter, for Stewart’s release from prison on health grounds.[ The Legacy of Lynne Stewart: The People's Lawyer ]
- April 14, 2017
Why do we allow veterans of recent wars to keep their weapons at home? Sometimes I think I’m alone in noticing a troubling American social pattern. When I mention how it keeps coming up again, others admit that they too noticed it. That’s all. It’s not the sort of thing one can easily follow.
Because media ignores it, the aggravation seems to disappear. Then it returns, as it did with the latest school killings—this time at the school in San Bernardino, California, this week.
I expect mine will be a highly unpopular opinion---it’s a hard one for Americans to swallow. But it has to be pointed out that when our military teaches our men and women to kill, legally, there is a terrifying and common spillover here at home, namely: they go on killing.
I have never been privy to the way military authorities pump up soldiers to kill, to revenge their fallen comrades, to hunt what are presented as savage animals who would take away ‘our freedoms’. But I‘ve heard enough to know that military training really hardens men, subjecting them racist and violent language to motivate them on the battlefield. Soldiers also learn to feel comfortable with weapons; they become highly attached to their guns.
We have to own up to it. As much as our presidents celebrate “these gallant men and women who put themselves in harms way”, U.S. veterans are increasingly among the killers in our own neighborhoods. They are among the gun-lovers and gun owners killing us and our children-- in our streets, in airports, in their homes and in our schools. When will we disarm these men who we celebrate for killing Iraqis, Afghanis, Syrians, Yemenis, Somalis?
In the case of Marine Chris Kyle of “Sniper” fame, the six dead in the baggage hall of Ft. Lauderdale airport, and this week’s San Bernardino’s North Park Elementary School killings, focus is on the victims. Yes, teacher Karen Elaine Smith deserves to be known and mourned nationally. So too, 8-year old Jonathan Martinez. That this teacher was dedicated to working with special-needs children, and the dead child himself suffered from an illness, makes the violence against them all the more despicable.
But news reports in this massacre’s aftermath, and likely in the weeks ahead will, according to common practice, fail to adequately investigate implications of the killer being a U.S. veteran who served in American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the case of the famous Iraq ‘war hero’ Chris Kyle, films and memorials celebrated this soldier’s killing power—160 kills, was it?—his victims may also have been teachers, perhaps among them, fathers, and brothers of boys like Jonathan Martinez. When Kyle was later murdered, it was by a fellow Iraq veteran. Eddie Routh was invited by Kyle and his colleague Chad Littlefield for an afternoon’s entertainment at a local shooting range. In the course of their sport, Routh shot dead both of his colleagues.
That event received wide press coverage because of the celebrity of Kyle, where again his prowess as a killer of Iraqis was applauded. Coverage included some history of Kyle’s killer with the spotlight on his mental problems.
There were others—too many. Remember Esteban Santiago-Ruiz? He is the mass murderer of 5 (with 8 injured) at the Ft. Lauderdale Airport last January. He too was a soldier, noted for receiving 10 awards during his time in the military.
Now we have Cedric Anderson, this month’s San Bernardino school killer. While investigations of his background highlight violence against women, he was also held (charges were dropped) for acts involving weapons. (There’s only cursory reference to Anderson’s 8 years in the U.S. navy.)
I recall reading about a man who murdered himself and his two daughters in their home-- a nice home on a nice American street—about a year ago. He too, I recall, was a military veteran. News of that massacre focused on his two unfortunate girls.
Yes, we know about PTSD. We know these boys have seen their buddies killed and wounded. We know the Department of Veterans Affairs could do better. But what about these men holding on to weapons when back in civilian life? What about the way they are trained in violence and hatred?
What about gathering data countrywide on how many killers in the U.S. over the past 25 years are veterans of recent wars? And how do U.S veterans who kill and maim, once discharged, compare with others across the globe, and in earlier U.S. wars? This epidemic needs urgent attention because we have more than two million of these young men among us. END
- April 06, 2017
“Back in government hands”; the journalist repeated it twice in the same account of her report from Homs, Syria. Lyse Doucet had returned to the former rebel-occupied (and we know the reputation of those rebel jihadis, don’t we?) Syrian city of Homs last week.
With apparent sympathy, Doucet sought out Bara’aa, now 12, to learn how the girl was managing. It had been three years after their first encounter, following the death of the child’s mother in a bombing.
Doucet, considered an outstanding, fearless and compassionate war journalist working across the region today, seemed touched that the child was doing well, especially pleased to be back in school. Doucet omitted any reference to the high value Syrians, like Iraqis and Palestinians among others, place on education. These are nations where every child since the 1960s was educated, where gender parity in school was standard decades ago.
Apart from the silliness of asking an Arab child, any child, if she likes school, and remarking “You don’t have bad memories, do you?”, Doucet seemed incapable of uttering the word ‘liberate’ at any point in her report. Palmyra was not liberated, nor Aleppo, nor Homs. No, they were simply (maybe regrettably, to some) “back in government hands”.
I don’t know if the BBC instructs its journalists never to use the word ‘liberate’ when an enemy army (in this case the Syrian government) regains territory from rebels and terrorist occupiers. Or if Doucet herself simply cannot conceive that ‘liberation’ is what may allow the child’s return to school, indeed the reporter’s own ability to enter Homs at all.
This attitude to Homs is more ironic when not far to the east, American forces are desperately trying to help Iraqis bring Mosul “back into government hands”. In the course of this assault, we are learning, many hundreds of Iraqis—probably including girls and boys like our Homs’ schoolchild—died… to get back to school. When that happens, and everyone prays it will be soon, there will doubtless be celebrations over the ‘liberation’ of Mosul.
Remember all the fanfare surrounding American forces’ attempt to liberate Falluja (in restless Anbar province) in west Iraq in 2004? Many details of the battle, which not only failed but resulted in huge losses of life, were leaked—the US troops used phosphorous gas, and besieged the city trapping many thousands of residents. The event is also remembered because dozens of American troops were killed in that effort, a major battle marking the first American encounter with Al-Qaeda/ISIS insurgents. (The second battle of Fallujah nine months later is descried as a “coalition victory”; never mind what remains of the city.)
There have been a series of military confrontations in Afghanistan and in Iraq over the years where territory held by U.S. and U.K. troops or their surrogates—were reoccupied by opposing forces. Just days ago a district where 100 British troops had lost their lives “fell to rebels”.
Given the considerable number of failures by Americans and their allies to permanently restore rebel-held regions to government hands, one can only admire a government that achieves this. (Although there is no certainty that Homs is really secure. We saw Palmyra in east Syria retaken by ISIS, then again liberated by Syrian forces.)
Consider, if American and British deaths to liberate territory in those distant places are so well remembered, can we not begin to imagine the cost in Syrian military lives? Why, when we heap applause on U.S. veterans, wounded or not, do we have no concept for their Syrian counterparts. How many Syrian mothers and fathers, sisters, brothers, nephews and nieces, grandsons and sons mourn their lost fighters, pray daily for their safety, and may occasionally even celebrate their ability, somehow, to liberate Syrian territory from jihadists?
Anyone in touch with a household in Syria will know the anxiety of family worrying when their son or brother will be called. Any young man, who for one reason or another hasn’t yet been recruited, waits in fear. He has friends who’ve been called up, others who’ve fallen on the battle field. Many refugees are youths who managed to escape the country and military service. Others still enrolled in school, are not exempt.
With every “back in government hands”, or “retaken by rebels”, there is unarguably a heavy toll involved in sending one little girl back to school. We owe her the right to feel her home has been liberated.[ Back in Government Hands!, or "Dying to Get Back to School" ]
- April 01, 2017
It’s been more than a week but they are still out there-- machines and people --pushing it, chopping it, lifting it-- moving it, somehow, out of the way, out of our routine pathways. Under attack by salt, sand and sunrays, the mountains of snow slowly retreat. Although early April forecasts warn this may not be the end. We groan at the thought.
People will be talking about Storm Stella for a decade. I had never seen so many plows— lumbering monsters, lights flashing, orange twelve-foot-wide metal wings lunging through the whiteness; plows with sand and salt sprayers follow the heavier machines. Narrower roads are tackled by ATVs, shovels and buckets newly fixed to their bumpers. Snow blowers of all sizes are ferried by truck to inaccessible homes and office buildings.
As we dig ourselves out, we are uncertain if another day of snow is due. Do we have enough food? What if electricity fails?
Following the dig out, neighbors exchange memories of the last blizzard in upstate New York. Gregg says it was 2003; others claim 1996 was the worst in memory.
I don’t remember the winter of ’96. Where was I?
Now I recall: in Iraq documenting the staggering impact of the United Nations sanctions (a U.S. initiated and policed blockade) against the country. (An action which Washington forced the UN to endorse.)
By 1996 the blockade on Iraq had been in effect for almost six years. By 1996 its people no longer waited for the isolation and shortages and illnesses and deprivations and heart attacks to end. By 1996 they ceased expecting any change in the United Nations position or fair treatment from waves of rude inspection teams. So many agencies were making millions (funds allocated by the U.S. from Iraq’s frozen bank accounts) from monitors and conferences, reviews and reports about the crippled nation’s poverty, sanctions compliance, and human rights accounting, there was no incentive to end the embargo.
The assaulted, besieged population adjusted, if adjust is the right word for survival. If anyone can adjust to personal losses and war, deprivations, indignities and manifold injuries. “Whatever we suffer today, we know only that tomorrow will be worse”, she noted. I don’t remember her name, but I know her voice—low and angry, lips pressed together. She was no more than 20. Her words slap against my brain cells, again and again, twenty years later.
Along with millions of other Iraqis she waited day after day, year after year. (And they still wait.)
Even though the embargo ended after 13 years and elections were held, many millions perished or moved abroad. Except for planning how to get whatever crumbs one may manage to suck out of the government, the only thing to look forward to is escape. A quarter century of uncertainty-- under dictatorship, under occupation, under democratically elected governments--persists.
Feeling the (temporary) assault and isolation created by Storm Stella’s engulfing New York last month, it occurred to me: Suppose it doesn't stop? Suppose another one hits before we have cleared this away; suppose all available plows are diverted to the city and we are forgotten? Suppose this goes on, the snow accumulating day after day, until May, and then suppose a week of rain follows? Suppose the melt-off and the downpour trigger floods, and roads are washed out? I didn’t feel panic; but for the first time, I really imagined what the accumulation of year after year after year of war could create.
I’d been in war zones. In Iraq observing crumbling infrastructure, closed hospitals, abandoned clinics, no flights, no medicines, no milk powder, heading for summer, I was nevertheless able to escape every time slipping in June away to avoid the searing heat. I had moved through Occupied Palestine, hearing tanks rumbling through a neighborhood, witnessing curfews and endless check points, school cancellations, shops shuttered, playgrounds locked. Since 2011, I’ve followed Syria’s trauma, with families and houses isolated from one another, declining services each month, utility cuts, shortages, one hardship piled on anther, no one to call for help.
Spring is suspended indefinitely in all these places. For all these inhabitants, all these souls.
A dystopian winter image set off by barely three days of interruption in my routine created by Storm Stella, brings me closer than anything else I had experienced to what millions are living inside those endless wars where the cruelness of winter storms goes on and on and on. END[ What Storm Stella Can Teach Us About War ]
- March 23, 2017
The tall good looking New Yorker, about 25, stands out in the crowd around me. His black curly hair shines, his head raised expectantly, his smile so unlike the sleepy people around us peering anxiously into their handheld devices.
I’ll learn before my trip ends that this warm faced lad’s name is Dijon.
Our fleeting association begins there on the platform waiting for the uptown #6 train. Initially his smile attracts me; then my gaze rises beyond his face to a shimmering red and silver flag; it’s actually a balloon waving above us, and somehow I know this belongs to Dijon. Seeing “Happy Anniversary” scrolled clearly on the shimmering surface, I think ‘Nice. He’s returning from an office party celebrating his marriage’. That explains his smile too.
I’m distracted by a growl from the mouth of the tunnel, a welcome noise to commuters at the end of their workday. Here comes the #6 train. The platform, dense with thick-coated bodies, begins to stir, preparing to press into the car the second its doors slide open. Forget about a seat; I may not even find standing room.
At 4:30 p.m., the rush of workers heading uptown to their homes—one room, maybe two, three at the most, somewhere in the Upper East Side, Spanish Harlem or the Bronx-- has begun.
I am unconcerned how Dijon, with his unwieldy balloon and the large carton cradled in his arms, manages to maneuver himself into the train as thirty other commuters lurch through that single door. Then, doors safely closed behind us, there’s that same balloon. And, here beside me, our backs squashed side by side against the door, stands its bearer, with the same quiet smile.
As this isn’t my regular route so I must check: where should I disembark? Instinctively, I look up towards the anniversary flag: “Does the #6 stop at 84th Street?” His voice is soft, reassuring: “We stop at 86th-- good for you. You know you could have taken the #5 express across the platform; you’d reach in just two stops by the five.”
Never mind; with this friendly opener I proceed with my inevitable interview, probing my travel companion’s agenda and introducing me to another New York lifestyle experience. “Your anniversary?” I inquire. “How many years?” “Oh no”, Dijon casually rejoins and, glancing at the balloon above us, explains: “I’m delivering this: Edible Arrangements. We’re a party service (I’ll Google it later) Nodding to the package in his arms now, he explains this service for family celebrations; “They get the balloon and our fruit package -- chunks of fresh pineapple, melon, apple, stuff like that-- arranged on sticks all poking out of a big orange. It’s really pretty, done up like a bouquet.”
And do you sing as you present this gift? “No, no”, and pausing, adds “But I could sing”.
It occurs to me that Dijon may in fact be a talented vocalist-- a singer, an actor, a performer of some kind. He’s probably one of the tens of thousands of gifted young people drawn to the city in search of gigs on stage, hunting for an agent, waiting to be discovered. Yes, that explains his bearing. I miss that cue, and instead ask about his ‘edible’ services; it’s a lifestyle service, the pampering of well-to-dos and trend-obsessed young people who socialize with indulgences, like hand delivered balloons and fruit baskets. “For say $50?”, I guess. “Hmm”, replies Dijon; “Well, $50 and up.”
I think: what could he earn for one delivery (remembering he has to travel by subway)? Maybe $10. I can’t ask him directly, so I follow up with “And tips? Do your happy anniversaries tip well?” Another “Hmmm” from Dijon. “No tips: not usually.”
(No point inquiring about health insurance or workman’s compensation.)
These delivery gigs employ battalions of young and energetic do-anything-to-live-in-New Yorkers. Would-be actors, comedians and musicians traditionally wait tables and serve drinks in the city’s many bars. More and more, these jobs are augmented by these delivery services which employ jobless graduates and anyone else willing to serve those who can pay, however indulging and frivolous the service. What’s offered are sometimes routine and tedious (house-cleaning, dog walking), at other times exotic and terribly fashionable (you can’t imagine).
Subway advertisements abound with invitations to do something special for yourself, or a loved one—all by phone apps, and like Uber-- delivered personally by a young man or woman at your door. Handy.com, delivery.com, taskrabbit, upwork.com blueapron.com, redbucket.com, deliveroo.com are just a few examples of what’s available.
It’s the gig economy; on one hand it’s emerging from excessive joblessness, a serious condition finally receiving attention from workers rights advocates. On the other hand it’s created by people with abundant disposable incomes. Based on both desperation and trendyness, servitude is a growth industry in American cities. Ediblearrangements.com and bueapron.com are New York chic.
The fashion crowd—i.e. those with monthly salaries, health insurance, social security savings and a company pension fund--- chat in the bar or at office break about these trendy services, similar, one imagines, to how white ladies chatted about their domestic ‘help’.
The Sunday Lifestyle section of your newspaper features the merits of blueapron.com fashion. Meanwhile less noticed reviews expose the inbuilt exploitation and the hardships lived by these young workers.
Doubtless some of the tens of thousands of wishful, handsome jobless graduates, having glimpsed inside those wealthy apartments to whom they delivered massages and fruit bouquets, gather after hours to invent their own startup service. Maybe they themselves can launch the next trend.
No one is thinking about workers rights. In fact a new adjunct trend is umbrella recruitment companies. They locate, vet and sign up individuals who they then farm out for hour and day jobs. In the UK this service extends to school teachers—all to save someone else money. END
- March 13, 2017
I am afraid to ask you you’re feelings about the recently announced American invasion into your country. In our talks these past months, we’ve spoken only about hardships: the increasing scarcity of electricity, water and food shortages, an absence of home heating fuel. This in the capital, Damascus, where people can still go to school and to work, where some local buses can navigate through the mud and debris, where drivers can sometimes find petrol for their cars.
When we’re able to connect by phone, you talk about people I know: parents unable to pay for their child’s surgery, a family with no means of keeping warm in winter.
You could easily leave to live abroad with your children. But you’re in charge of a children’s home, and you simply can’t abandon the staff—those few who remain. Before, donations were adequate and teachers sufficient. Now teachers are leaving to find work and safety abroad, following many hundreds of doctors who’ve emigrated. You spend more time searching for assistance from the few remaining families offering charity. Syrians have always been especially generous to the homeless (few though they were in the past), and to any charitable effort by any faith. How can able Syrians sustain this deeply embedded principle when they themselves are in need, dependent on their children abroad?
Do you have someone outside who supports you while you provide succor to others inside? I don’t know what sustains you, apart from your love of country, something few speak about these days, and hardly anyone outside Syria recognizes.
On international women’s day here, I broadcast some interviews from my audio archive, conversations with women in Damascus 6-7 years ago. Each spoke with such pleasure about her work, delighted too that their voices, Syrian voices, might be heard (and felt) in America. I don’t know where those patriotic souls are today. None would have chosen to leave, I know that. In 2010 their lives had been full and promising. Yours, too. And those of your office staff and everyone at the children’s center, and your youngest son, just graduated.
You and I witnessed many favorable changes under the new, young president. Tourists were arriving in large numbers. Shopping malls were lively and welcoming. Colleges were vibrant centers of learning and hope; new private universities were flourishing. “Why should our bright young people go to Lebanon or Europe to study?” you declared: “We can educate them here, providing more work for our professors, for contractors who build these colleges, and for staff who drive buses and manage college dorms and cafeterias.”
Nowadays, students who can’t find a way to leave, face military service. There are no figures about all the soldiers killed and wounded; it’s tens of thousands, for certain. Only a few families can manage to pay for their sons to avoid the draft. “We are losing all of our young people,” you sigh. That proclamation lies in the shadow of every one of our conversations.
Five years ago, after I returned to New York from Syria, I followed news reports and forwarded you an occasional report from writers Joshua Landis, Robert Fisk or Patrick Cockburn which I thought might shed light on events; you asked me what I thought the U.S. administration was planning and what American commentators were saying about Syria. Then we ended these exchanges. They were useless; they simply offered false hope.
In the months preceding the American election your interest and hope returned; a new U.S. administration might somehow bring the war to a close. Then however, you decided that whoever prevailed, Democrats or the Republicans, Syria could hardly expect relief, peace, a settlement:-- nothing but worsening conditions and the loss of youths, teachers and doctors.
We haven’t spoken about the new U.S. leadership. Nor did I ask you for your reaction to Israel’s bombing of Syria last month, an aggression that garnered almost no attention here. Was that attack more unsettling and ominous that earlier Israeli assaults?
I expect that Syrians can think about little except: “Can it get worse? And, “How can we find some heating fuel, more medicine, a pair of shoes?”
On top of all this comes this major political development:-- the unconcealed arrival of American military presence on your soil. Marines and heavy armaments are moving into Syria as I write. According to U.S. generals, their troops are deployed to help Washington’s Syrian allies—not the Syrian army-- to dislodge and eradicate ISIS from Raqqa. This move comes in the wake of remarkable gains by the Syrian army backed by Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah forces.
While the U.S. troop arrival is (to the American public) optimistically presented as ISIS-motivated, you and I know that it’s likely a pretext; it’s really another step in The U.S.’s Syria ‘mission creep’. Has Washington ever limited military incursion to the announced goal? Has it left anything behind its wars on Arab soil except destruction and deprivation, chaos and animosity?
Five years ago, following initial uprisings in Syria, many there might have welcomed an American military presence. But in time, you and your compatriots understood America’s support for the cruelest, most extreme opposition (rebel) fighters; Washington’s endorsement of Saudi and Qatari plans to sow chaos in Syria was clear within a few months. As Syrians comprehended the real US agenda--to destroy and disrupt at any cost--their view changed.
So what now? This most nationalist of Arab states is still somehow intact, against all odds. All those Syrian boys martyred; those barefoot children, those empty colleges, those ghostly shopping malls wait.
I could find no public response here to this week’s American surge in Syria, no indication that it’s a noteworthy U.S. policy change, no journalist asking for Syrians’ reactions. An unsettling silence engulfs the first hours of a new American invasion.
Barbara Nimri Aziz, a New York-based anthropologist and writer, hosted RadioTahrir on Pacifica-WBAI in New York City for 24 years. Her 2007 book Swimming Up the Tigris: Real Life Encounters with Iraq is based on her 13 years covering Iraq. Aziz’ writings and radio productions can be accessed at www.RadioTahrir.org, Syrian stories at http://podcast.radiotahrir.org/?s=syria[ Letter to My Friend in Damascus ]
- February 17, 2017
One hardly expects a story of political struggle to feature a team of intemperate young women racing their cars around a dusty, fenced-in track. But in a Palestinian context, everything is political. Even if the new film Speed Sisters doesn't chronicle an explicit struggle, it’s a portrait of a people whose determination will remind Israelis that resistance to their occupation is not moribund.
My January review of Ghada Karmi’s memoir Return points to inexorable expressions of what it means to be Palestinian, how memories of Palestine are inexhaustible. Surely a half century of pursuits by writers, journalists, artists, lawyers, and boys-with-stones testify to the compelling Palestinian narrative, propelled by the unquenchable energy of these people and the rightness of their mission.
Some stories are tragic, some heroic (and at the same time tragic), some little more than nostalgia, and others simply facts-on-the-ground. Some, like Return, are forlorn and, grudgingly, sadly honest.
Filmmaking too documents the unfolding, always unfolding, story of Palestine. There was The Wanted 18, Amer Shomali’s 2014 animated Palestinian film told from the viewpoint of dairy cows deemed a threat to Israeli security. Elia Suleiman’s productions (Chronicle of a Disappearance, Divine Intervention, The Time That Remains) are augmented by Nida Sinnokrot’s documentary Palestine Blues, focusing on the destiny of a farm tractor. Mai Masri, director of nine films, continues a distinguished career with a new production, “3000 Nights”, now opening in several US cities.
Veteran filmmaker Masri is joined by a notable new generation of mainly women, among them Palestinians Annemarie Jacir (Salt of the Sea), and Cherien Dabis (Amreeka). Canadians Ruba Nadda (Cairo Time) and Nadine Labaki (Caramel and Where Do We Go Now?) are well established feature filmmakers. Among newcomers are Rola Nashef (Detroit Unleaded) and Amber Fares, director of Speed Sisters opening in New York this month. A new twist on the Palestinian experience, these ‘speed sisters’ are four feisty women and their team captain. They’re race car drivers spinning and screeching their vehicles through courses in Bethlehem, Jericho, and their hometown Ramallah. In sync with these women, the film is a fast-paced, raucous adventure that follows their pride, their energy and their drive to win.
Fares sets her camera sometimes from within the women’s vehicles, sometimes in the middle of the dusty course as the racer spins and roars around her, sometimes in her home, sometimes among admiring male fans cheering her on from the bleachers, all this within sight of ubiquitous Israeli troops. (All spaces here are militarily occupied.)
Car racing started in Palestine in 2005 and women joined the sport hardly a year later. One can’t help admiring these women. Each snaps on her helmet and grits her teeth, jaws set firmly on victory even against competing teammates. We have the firm impression that each knows what she’s doing and knows what she wants. Director Fares interweaves raucous racing scenes into the women’s encounters with military occupation—passing through checkpoints en route to Jerusalem, sneaking a day at the beach near Tel Aviv, courting a tear gas attack when they playfully approach an Israeli patrol.
If we as viewers remove ourselves from the excitement of the chase and the energy of each racer’s personality, we might ask: where could this thrilling hobby possibly lead, for the individual women, and for Palestinian political aspirations?
On her drive to Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem for prayers team captain Maysoon is assaulted by young boys selling balloons. In the moments when the camera catches their stubborn exchange with Maysoon, we can feel the boldness of those boys, the same resolve that infuses these women racers. Their life is really tough, and they won’t give up.
You don’t want to mess with this crowd.[ Film Review--"Speed Sisters" by director Amber Fares ]
- February 09, 2017
Return of The Boycott as Political Resistance
How can the American public push back on its brash and prejudiced president while a pliant Republican party in control of the U.S. Congress seems in no mood to oppose their new leader?
Workers’ strikes may be effective in some countries. In America striking is a tool of the distant past. Workers syndicates, with the possible exception of police unions, are hardly extant in the 21st century.
Boycott is an option, but generally not a very effective political instrument where people are too attached to their pleasures and habits, whether sugary drinks, big cars, online shopping, dining or holidaying. (I admit that I myself am facing difficulty—thus far I’m managing—sustaining my boycott of SNL because of Katie Rich’s nasty remark about Trump’s young son.)
But we’re in a new era, aren’t we? A new ball game, where the immediate target of boycott would be very precise, a mortal, and a businessman. A perfect prey. No need to appeal to ethics or justice, when the strategy is to vote with one’s wallet against Trump family enterprises. No court decisions are needed, no mass signatures, no parades at the gates of Trump properties. Consumers can simply stop buying, and there’s plenty to strike off the shopping list, starting with Ivanka Trump’s fashion and jewelry products—carried in upscale stores like Nieman Marcus and Saks and by peoples’ retailers Walmarts and Amazon. (A boycott that overrides class distinctions). From reports of markdowns in store this week, the action, initiated by #grabyourwallet seems well underway.
But wait. Ivanka’s shoe line is the glamorous surface of this movement. Forget about quarterback Brady’s friendship with Trump, and discover an underworld of millions of possible boycotters. I’m talking about academics—an almost invisible and, dare I say, politically conservative American (liberal) population. Our scientists and academics, if sufficiently angry and if they can summon the courage to boycott, could make a tremendous impact. Unexpectedly, tens of thousands have already signed on to what’s become a tsunami wave to challenge Trump’s Muslim ban. University staff, hospital administrators, researchers and professors in all fields of scholarship and science are publicly acknowledging the millions of women and men in their labs, their lecture halls, their conferences and panels, and their classrooms who are recent or settled immigrants, visiting students, invited professors, co-authors—all foreign born, many of them Muslim-- on special visas or with green cards.
In response to President Trumps travel ban, two major academic boycotts are underway: a Canadian boycott with over 4000 signatories arose on the heels of another initiated in the UK with over 42,000 supporters. All are refusing to attend any professional conferences in the USA. To start.
Academic conferences? you inquire smugly. We need millions of plebeians in the streets to make any impact, you claim.
I give street protests their due; they’re essential in demonstrating the reach and depth of public resistance. But don’t sniff at conferences. Hotels thrive on them, yes. But so do our professors, graduate students, the entire research community, and the economy. Academic conferences are where new graduates seek employment, where scholars present research findings and authors hunt for publishers, where accolades are awarded and new leaders are identified, where alumni meet and reaffirm their college’s reputation, where professional networks are strengthened and expanded. These conferences are huge events. Take my field of anthropology for example. As a U. K. graduate we had a community of barely 300 anthropologists in the 1980s. So I was overwhelmed on my initial visit to the U.S., attending the annual AAA (American Anthropological Association) conference, to find myself among 3,300 fellow researchers. (Today that figure is double.) Besides nation-wide conferences, each profession has regional gatherings and state forums. Multiply this by all the professions, from neurology to modern Chinese literature, paleontology to copyright law, and you begin to grasp the scale of this low-keyed professional world.
Conferences are essential to academic growth, to career advancement, to intellectual competition and exchange, events eagerly anticipated year after year. Yet tens of thousands are ready to forego them in support of their ‘foreign’ colleagues. This is serious.
These scientists know how essential ‘foreigners’ are to their own successes, to rigorous intellectual dialogue, and to America’s global cultural and scientific influence. Those foreign students joining research teams win accolades and grants for their departments, many staying on permanently. Visiting professors are welcomed, feted, and often offered permanent jobs in the U.S. The high quality education and love of learning that Indians, Iraqis, Iranians, Pakistanis, Palestinians, Sudanese, and Syrians bring from their homelands are coveted by U.S. research laboratories, colleges and institutes.
Perusing the 2013 American National Science Foundation survey we can measure the prominence of immigrants. For example, between 2003 and 2013, of 341,000 immigrant scientists and engineers, more than half, 1,873,000, originated in Asia—Far East, Southeast and South Asia, and ‘other’-- likely West Asia/Middle East. (Compare with 632,000 from Europe, and 179,000 from South America.)
Of 21,000,000 scientists and engineers, 15.6 percent are non-native born. Over 80 percent of immigrant scholars enter computer and math sciences, increasingly important fields in our economy.
Engaging in an academic boycott is a real social, political and economic sacrifice. It’s neither common nor easy, as attested in the long, uphill of the academic boycott of Israel. Older professors recall their successful boycott of South Africa (1965-1990), part of the global Anti-Apartheid movement, 50 years ago with nostalgia, partly because of its exceptionality. So today’s boycott against Trump’s policies represents a historical breakthrough.
The lists are growing daily, the most recent being the boycott by an American NGO, a Minnesota nonprofit serving Somali-American youth.
Over barely two weeks, public boycotts are matching a fortnight of presidential decrees.
- January 27, 2017
The news has been so overwhelming these weeks. So I hadn’t fully grasped the implications of one incident, namely, what Katie Rich, comedy writer for NBC’s popular Saturday Night Live, tweeted about President Trump’s 10-year-old son. Even though she withdrew her invocation that “Barron will be this country’s first homeschool shooter”, it’s still with us. It’s done. And it’s bad. Has her taunt been widely condemned by our liberal press? Or are they taking off their gloves and recruiting her for the forthcoming battle?
Satirists enjoy considerable license. But there’s always a line. Rich apologized, and NBC suspended her. Are we to be satisfied with this? Not this woman or her employer; no, I’m asking if such remarks are to become the norm.
What do we do? What shall I do? How shall liberals who want to resist the Trump agenda respond? What should thousands of SNL followers do if they too feel repulsed by Rich’s words? Do we retort with: “Hey, Trump himself set today’s standard for insults; that makes him and his family fair targets”? If so, where will this lead? Nowhere useful, to be sure.
I’m not a loyal fan of SNL, the long running satirical program which I understand is the mother of American TV parody and satire. (Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and Stephen Colbert’s Report arrived in US homes much later.) Yet after Alex Baldwin’s parodies of Donald Trump on SNL, I’ve gone out of my way to watch clips of the show. Baldwin is terrific, and although the butt of his caricature himself takes to twitter in reply, Baldwin stays within an established border-- although barely, I admit. You may argue that anyone entering the celebrity spotlight has to grow thick skin. But are celebrity children not protected?
Mr. Trump Sr. is a big boy; as a public official now, he’s fair game. The problem is the standard that these clever comics set for the rest of us.
This brings me back to what I might do. Shall I condone the growing public ridicule against anything and anyone in the other camp? Frankly, I find Katie Rich’s remark repugnant and unconscionable. I expect my condemnation of Rich may garner accusations that I’m a Trump supporter. Still, I must speak out. If I refuse to indulge this nasty dialogue, what’s left? Signing the change.org petition to NBC (only 41,000 names to date) to fire Rich’s seems inadequate.
What are the choices for me? (Perhaps for you too.) I (we) could boycott SNL. In my public platform, I could advocate against these tit-for-tat attacks that have become accepted in our profession—gossip, scandal, candid photos, personal politics. These are a major part of journalism; and they attract real talent.
We’ve got find a bigger, nobler response.
Because today so much that I value is threatened. (Not to mention having personally devoted decades of my life and my career defending my Arab and Muslim people and culture, enhancing the dialogue between us and others, joining a rising community of energetic Muslim comics, educators, writers, poets, performers and filmmakers in the uphill struggle.)
Today we face a bruising time. Institutions we worked so doggedly to build and sustain, and with such hope, are threatened. The education of our own people to assert our rights, to strengthen our efforts in solidarity with others: all that’s in jeopardy. The battle will get uglier than it is now. It could become violent and the gap between opposing views could widen.
I belong to the tribe who calls itself ‘progressive’. Maybe liberal too. Although I digress from American liberals on many issues. I’ve always known Democrats are in step with the Republican Party on many issues, but Democratic Party behavior in this past election alienated me, maybe forever. I’ve had to distance myself from associates whose short memory, whose opinions and attitudes I have found only ‘selectively’ progressive, whose real life experience is increasingly narrow, and whose news sources are even more limited, despite their educational degrees.
Katie Rich’s tweet about Barron Trump may seem like a passing issue; it’s over, she apologized. Liberal friends will defend her by invoking the intolerance and disrespect Barron’s father habitually exhibits. “This is the son of the monster who now threatens all our values, our human rights,” they plead.
I observed Saturday’s (women’s) march at close hand, embedded among that gleeful, self-satisfied crowd moving through Manhattan. It was a largely White people’s march; that surprised me. Apart from a scattering of South Asian faces and a few groups of Latina women, I glimpsed only an occasional African American there. And, although I searched those faces for fellow Muslims, I couldn’t identify any. I saw only one kaffiyeh, the iconic Palestinian scarf so prominent at protests during the 90s. Three marchers of Turkish origin who I know personally were as inconspicuously Muslim as I am. OK; I accept that many in our community feel especially vulnerable these days; but if we’re not comfortable among this crowd of protesters declaring their alliance with American Muslims, then where? Perhaps these friendly marchers are out-of-touch with the Muslims they now celebrate.
Not to forget Aziz Ansari; he was stunning on SNL last week. But I’m still resolved to boycott the show. It’s a start, until I can figure out my long-term agenda. END
Barbara Nimri Aziz, a New York-based anthropologist and writer, hosted RadioTahrir on Pacifica-WBAI in New York City for 24 years. Her 2007 book Swimming Up the Tigris: Real Life Encounters with Iraq is based on her 13 years covering Iraq. Aziz’ writings and radio productions can be accessed at www.RadioTahrir.org.[ Will We Become as Hateful, Insensitive and Boorish as The Opposition? ]
- January 20, 2017
On February 15, 2003, when millions reportedly filled the streets of U.S. cities to oppose the invasion of Iraq, I was in Mosul. Yes, the Mosul Iraqi forces are poised to retake, the Iraqi city adjacent to Nineveh, the ancient site trashed by ISIL.
For 12 years, from 1990 to 2002, it was evident that the U.S. and its chief allies, England and Israel, were bent on wholly destroying Iraq. Millions died (lives lost before 2003 are not figured into ‘Iraq body count’); millions more were stricken by one disease or another, fell into poverty, or fled. That war was carried out under the auspices of our global peace agency, the United Nations, in a multi-pronged U.S.-designed and policed blockade. So successful was that embargo, so intimidated or distracted was the public, that only a handful of individuals, mainly Europeans, dared to enter Iraq to document that onslaught, the resulting ‘humanitarian’ disaster, and the collapse of a remarkable modern society and an ancient civilization.
By 1998, after eight brutal years of punishment and deprivation, unexpectedly and wondrously, Iraq began to reverse its downward trajectory. And, when the enemy (U.S.A./U.K./Israel) saw its embargo was collapsing, they raised the WMD scare and activated their military option. Seeing their government preparing for a massive assault, the American public awoke in panic, afraid not for Iraqis but for their own sons and brothers.
Hoards unmoved by 12 years of Iraqi suffering and deaths suddenly erupted with anti-war fervor: “No blood for oil”, “Not in our name”, “We are the greater truth”. The largest rally in history would be remembered as “an incredible moment”—800 cities. Today liberals of all stripes boast of their anti-war devotions, their respect for Iraqi civilization, their opposition to violence. They all loved peace; they loved Iraqi people. (Later they would claim, “while we couldn’t prevent war, we proved it’s clear illegality”.)
It was sobering to be inside Iraq that February 15th in 2003. Together with my friends in Mosul I watched news of the purported millions rallying across the world on Iraq’s behalf. But no one inside Iraq was impressed. The protests had nothing to do with Iraqis. Where had these peace devotees been for the last decade? Those rallies were, we felt, disingenuous--just a panic attack by a naïve people who wanted to assure themselves that they are kind, moral, knowing.
Within Iraq we felt a confused sadness, and surrender. No one knew from where the enemy would descend. Their decimated forces could not defend Iraq’s borders. There was nowhere to run, to hide. To whom could they plead for intervention? People called their families-- to gather loved ones near. Everyone prayed silently. Millions sat in a daze, waiting. Hearing about that impulsive interest in peace around the globe did not stir us, not at all. It was late, and childish.
How does that history bear on today’s rallies across USA? Like the righteous anti-war upsurge of 2003, this weekend’s march is a demonstration of liberal America’s panic—a belated attempt to redress a wrong, a mistake, a realization of having been coddled and misled, or misinformed. Those retreating to the street to shout “Not my president” are secretly admitting they goofed. It’s not Trump’s or Clinton’s missteps motivating them. It’s their own errors: their misunderstanding of how democracy works.
Week after week these ‘good guys’ used their (first amendment) freedom of speech repeating daily gossip generated over Facebook and the media, a deluge of funny, encouraging, or bizarre utterances by Sanders, Clinton, Carson or Cruz, and especially by Trump, while ignoring the senate races, state legislative elections, their own district politicians and neighbors with different ideas. Like-minded friends huddled in social networks agreeing that they knew best, that their single news source offered the truth.
There were so many clever quotes to relay, so many alarming things said, so much money spent, such good satire. Overwhelmed, liberals panicked and sought shelter with the familiar. Even those who foreswore network news couldn’t resist indulging crazy quotes and caricatures. When Nov. 8th arrived, perhaps many didn’t bother voting, as if only presidential candidates were on the ballot. Some knew Clinton would win from their holy book, the New York Times. After all, Clinton was endorsed by a Nobel laureate, Michael Moore, and Noam Chomsky. And millions of feminists were determined that America must finally catch up to the rest of the world with its own woman leader.
We know what happened. And we see today, similar to Feb. 15, 2003 preceding the invasion of Iraq, these good guys find that they have been misled, misinformed, misguided, overconfident, and a minority—just plain out of touch. Some actually wept. When conceding defeat, Clinton addressed her distraught supporters as if they were children.
About the failed 2003 anti-war rally, one unapologetic organizer noted: “While we did not prevent the Iraq war, the protests proved its clear illegality....” This weekend’s marches are expressing essentially the same message. As John Whitehead writes in his Rutherford Institute 01/19/2017 newsletter: “If those marches and protests are merely outpourings of discontent … with no solid plan of action or follow-through, then what’s the point?”
Some Republican TV presenters’ advice to despondent liberals is: “You lost; get over it; suck it up”.
The only value of the marches and protests is to energize, rebuild networks, and identify new leaders. Meanwhile a rush of guidebooks, some humorous, for living in the new America have been rushed though the press. Among them is Gene Stone’s Trump Survival Guide. In a radio interview, Stone offers some solid counsel, invoking successful organizing strategies of the opposition. I would also advise liberals to dump their New York Times subscription (although I’m dismayed to learn NYT readership rose after Nov 8th);
The major issue for liberals is: can you learn to cross the isle? America is smitten with a polarized two party system. And liberals thus far seem disinterested in either cleaning up the Democratic Party or building a new movement independent of it.
Let’s not take too long to figure out the way forward. END[ Why I Am Not Joining This Weekend's March in Washington (or Anywhere Else) ]
- January 10, 2017
I was returning with other volunteers in our fire department’s SUV after our community training course. This was last autumn, not long after the Republican Party convention. Not unreasonably, our conversation during the long drive home turned to Donald Trump. Frank, usually rather taciturn, turned to a younger member of our crew with uncharacteristic passion: “They’ll take all our guns away. Wait and see,” he declared. Frank was not applauding Trump as much as he was cursing a generic government which he sees threatening his right to own guns. Frank proceeded determinedly to declare how the US government is encroaching on our lives-- not his life, ours-- with its excessive regulations: “Look around us here, look at this beautiful country! They want to control it. Just leave the land alone”, he pleaded.
Frank hunts deer and turkeys in season and is a proud owner of several guns. But I wouldn’t describe Frank as right-wing or violent. He volunteers his time to the local fire department, he opposes fracking (oil and gas drilling technology that has aroused much debate and warnings from environmentalists), and his simple dream is to buy land in the next county to build a small farm. Despite his support for Trump’s candidacy, I felt Frank was neither attacking Democrats nor hailing Republicans. (He is dissatisfied, or fearful-- doubtless partly due to his bleak job outlook.) I suspect that he championed the Republican front-runner as someone who offers him better odds that his prospects will improve.
I first met Frank at our community fire hall. He was stretched out under one of the fire engines attaching a trailer hitch to the chassis. He happily spent several hours there, wrench in hand, shirt soiled, grunting and chuckling. As a volunteer first-responder, Frank is provided with accident insurance, but only if injured on a call. Neither he nor his wife—she works as a waitress for minimum wage at a local café-- nor their son has family health protection.
As a part-time house painter with a local contractor, Frank’s income is low. He left New Jersey for upstate New York two years ago because, at forty-five, he had back problems and had to quit his previous job stacking cement blocks. Notwithstanding his affection for guns—I think it’s the mechanics of guns that he enjoys, similar to his fondness for his old truck and his motorbike-- Frank holds values which people identifying as ‘liberal’ would consider progressive. He’s an organic food enthusiast, for example. And what he can’t grow in the back garden (of his rented house), he willingly pays premium prices for at organic markets. The family’s eggs come from hens he feeds with organic fodder. Not unreasonably, he prides himself on his discerning tastes: he prepares sushi and sashimi, his favorite food. And he drinks only ‘craft beer’, a new industry popular with young liberals. With his wife, Frank visits nearby towns to compare local brews-- a favorite evening pastime for them.
Although Frank highlights gun ownership in his politics, I doubt if guns are what really draws him to Trump. In fact many people I know in our town who are keen hunters are actually Democrats. (N.Y.’s Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, like Bernie Sanders, endorses the sport and thereby supports gun ownership.) It’s complicated, as they say.
Americans residing outside metropolises are not as simplistic and monocultural—nor are they ‘racist’-- as news articles purport. Gun owners like Frank who live in rural areas (Trump Country?) really do not fit the one-dimensional mould others with different hobbies cast them in. I see no evidence that Frank and fellow beer aficionados are more ignorant, bigoted, intolerant, or racist than anyone else.
This corresponds to what the prolific sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild concludes from her experience in Louisiana. Her fine new book, Strangers in Their Own Land, is based on her comprehensive five-year study of Lake Charles, an “arch-conservative Louisiana bayou” community. A timely project employing anthropology research methods, Hochschild’s work was published just as America’s deep cultural fault lines were exposed during the recent presidential campaign. Hochschild’s story of “anger and mourning in the American right” portrays a community unlike what outsiders have ever seen and known: their members are kind, religious, and not at all intolerant. (This picture is reinforced by another recent release, the memoir Hillbilly Elegy). Indeed, they reject accusations of racism from our ‘liberal press’. And they can argue convincingly for their conservative positions. Their stories, recorded by Hochschild in extensive and vivid biographies, expose ambiguities and differences among people impacted by industrial pollution and low employment prospects. The wider public and journalists in particular would do well to make note of the detailed picture this highly skilled scholar provides.
Still I would caution that we not accept Hochschild’s portrait as exclusive to this ‘far-right’ (Trump Country) corner of America. Conditions she describes, I would argue, are not confined to a depressed, industry-exploited region. There’s a danger that we assume Lake Charles, Louisiana, represents an alien and unworthy hinterland of the American south. (Examining election statistics for New York, we’d be shocked to learn that in this proudly ‘liberal state’, only 19.7 % of registered voters cast ballots during recent presidential primaries, a record that is second worst in the country to-- guess where? Louisiana.)
What most disturbs me is not the character of these communities, or Frank’s mixed values. More troubling is how putative ‘liberals’ view fellow Americans who are Republican Party supporters as personally and culturally deficient. (Did you notice the distinction pre-election pollsters made of non-college educated and college graduates?)
In October, at Democratic Party candidates’ field offices in my district, I overheard shockingly derisive comments from volunteer canvassers about Republican opponents (comments overlooked by the presiding field officer). If uttered by ‘conservatives’, there’d be accusations (from ‘liberals’) of bigotry and racism.
Had I not known about Frank’s fondness for Japanese sushi, seen his pride that his 14-year-old son forgoes cafeteria meals at school for the organic sandwiches prepared by his father, and had I not witnessed Frank’s commitment to our fire department and his care for his garden, I might have assigned him to ‘Trump Country’ and kept my distance.
Maybe because I’m an anthropologist and journalist, I’m curious to know Frank; I can easily approach him to learn about his life and his ideals. Most Americans who consider themselves ‘liberal’ would remain aloof from Frank, if not out of some irrational fear, then due to a perceived class or occupational divide. This is worrisome. And I’m not the first observer now questioning the real nature (perhaps the myth) of ‘liberal’ America. It’s evident that this sector of our citizenry is less well informed than it believes it is, more driven by emotion and prejudice than it realizes. And it harbors dangerous biases. Perhaps it is itself guilty of racism. The November 8th election results exposed ‘liberals’’ imprudence of being better educated and more qualified for leadership as misguided. As one Marxist Nepali critic I recently spoke to observed of Clinton’s much heralded pre-election rally in Pennsylvania with music celebrities: “They went to the concert to see the stars, not her.”[ Profile of a Progressive Gun Enthusiast ]
- January 03, 2017
It had been five years since I last ventured into the Occupied Territories, the shrinking Palestinian homelands. I had stood speechless at the misnomered separation wall, essentially a cement corral and a menacing blight on the landscape of the Holy Land. I had seen the oasis of Jericho become barely more than an imposing hotel where peace conferees and aid agents hide in style from the peace they are unarguably not advancing. I had witnessed how a simple crossroad, Qalandia, outside Jerusalem had become a fenced-in channel through which Palestinians waiting to be inspected by young Israeli guards are humiliated and delayed, only to sometimes be turned back. I had noted increasing numbers of women covering themselves in colorless, suffocating garb. (What their message was and to whom it was addressed, I couldn’t understand.) I had found it embarrassing to revisit families living under occupation who’d earlier spent hours with me remembering martyrs and imprisoned sons, detailing routine violence by an encroaching Jewish population, the armed colonists, and explaining the unpredictability of Israeli military procedures. I had stood with neighbors gazing helplessly as a family’s dwelling was demolished by a three-story high Israeli bulldozer. I‘d sat in a van with anxious Palestinians waiting to enter their homeland at the Jordan-Israeli border, watching in pained silence while happy travelers from a busload of American students casually tossed a football back and forth while their passports were processed.
Following the 1993 Oslo Accord—we can’t call it a peace treaty -- one might have glimpsed the tricolor Palestinian banner posted somewhere on the dry hills between the Allenby Bridge and Abu Dis at the entry to Jerusalem. By 2010, there was no sign of that flag, except perhaps one painted on that foreboding cement wall-- on the Palestinian side.
Even with bleak news continually seeping from inside the occupation, even with the risks of reporting on Israel’s suffocation and murders of Palestinians, I had promised a dear friend that I’d revisit her this winter. Laila remains there year after year. A psychologist, her skills are in increasing demand by the traumatized population.
Travelers not Palestinian can reach Ramallah and return to Amman in Jordan in one day. Within two days I’d be able to witness the latest changes, encroachments and destructions, and also pass an evening with Laila, this extraordinarily cheerful and resolute soul.
I never reached Ramallah, not physically. Resting after my arrival from Abu Dhabi at a friend’s home in Amman, I picked up a newly published volume her book club had recently discussed, Return: A Palestinian Memoir, by Ghada Karmi. I knew the author’s earlier work but I‘d not expected this, her second memoir, to be so gripping.
There are numerous memoirs by Palestinians, most notably Out of Place by Edward Said, another by his own sister, one by poet Suheir Hammad, by Randa Jarrar and many others, now extending into three generations. (Most are in English, the majority by women.)
One wonders how many more impassioned, compelling chronicles we need to inform us of the ongoing drama and injustices in their homeland. Yet, opening the pages of this ‘return’ I found myself following Karmi’s chronicle as if it were a crime story. (At one level it is a crime story.) Unlike many narrators of Israeli crimes, this book begins as an account of ‘soft’ crimes, those by Palestinian officials and the United Nations in complicity with the Palestinian Authority (PA) in their charade of possessing power and winning justice.
I myself had witnessed the gradual transformation of returned Palestinian leaders into a corrupt and impotent club of (mainly) men hanging out in Ramallah pretending to lead, but actually serving as front for independence, their putative authority extending no further than the boundary of this city of NGOs, foreign schools and upscale restaurants. I also witnessed diaspora Palestinians returning to Gaza City after 1993, investing in their forthcoming state, “a Mediterranean Hong Kong”, only to depart within a decade, embittered and often more deeply religious, returning to homes in Austin, Texas and Brooklyn, New York.
Here was a well informed doctor and an experienced leader in the Palestinian diaspora coming to Ramallah not as a visiting correspondent, but with a prestigious insider’s ID. Karmi left a medical career in London to take a job as a UN appointee in the PA’s Ministry of Media and Communications. She was eager to join her compatriots, reasoning, “I would be at the heart of things, and would learn the inner workings of the institution that organized life in the Occupied Territories, although they were under Israeli control” …. happy she “would not join the host of marginal researchers, foreign experts and hangers-on who cluttered the numerous non-governmental organizations in the West Bank.” That was 11 years ago, in 2005, when both Gaza and the West Bank were under the new PA. Surely as a Palestinian born in Jerusalem to a well regarded family, a longtime activist for justice and statehood, Karmi had reason to be optimistic.
“What the hell was I thinking of?” is the opening line of the first chapter of Return uttered as her plane was touching down. This trip would be the culmination of many visits to Karmi’s mythical homeland. Her misgivings and evidence of a doomed mission on her first day at work aside, Karmi persisted, perhaps deciding early on that this could at least be the basis of another book, although this memoir appeared in 2015, a full decade after the assignment she describes--surely an indication of the time the author needed to come to terms with what she experienced and to recount them with such candor. (Anyone committed to the Palestinian cause would have difficulty abandoning it, even when facing censure and personal loss.)
With commendable skill, Karmi forges ahead detailing the routine of Palestinian Authority life, recalling word-for-word dialogues among sophisticated dining businessmen, diplomats, drivers and office colleagues that reveal the competition, the conflicts, the jealousies, the pretenses and disillusionment, the jockeying for favors, and just keeping one’s job. And keeping aid flowing.
The malice of Israeli policy is well known, so too the incompetence and duplicity of Palestinian officials. Karmi is not the first to admit the PA is dysfunctional and an utter failure in the quest for statehood. But she exposes the problems with such candor and literary skill that the reader is committed to follow her to the end.
I found myself feeling emotionally involved, without rancor or impatience, in the personalities Karmi introduces me to. Perhaps this is the result of the author’s respect for these people and her genuine curiosity in the issues they discuss, whether with an office worker, or with a co-founder of the Hamas movement who himself comes across to us as more sincere than Mahmoud Abbas or other PA officials. (Even while questioning this Gaza leader’s strategies, Karmi offers a stunningly convincing rationale for the resistance to which he and his compatriots are committed.)
Our author employs the same technique when chronicling her exchanges with her father in Amman. A learned man in religion, history and culture, Hassan Karmi held Britain and the USA largely responsible for the success of the Zionist plan; he argues with his daughter in defense of the heightened role of religion in Arab lives. In her recounted dialogues, the author expresses genuine doubts about the Hamas leader’s or her father’s positions on the subject at hand, while allowing their argument to prevail, at least for the purpose of edifying us, her readers. This literary strategy Karmi applies throughout her memoir, and with striking affect.
Karmi also invokes those visits with her ailing father to record her personal history and to expose problems she finds with Arab family values, exploring the expectations and challenges of women like herself. In this respect, this memoir is not only the story of a professional woman, but also the chronicle of a daughter, a wife and a mother.
As I proceed though this Palestinian memoir, I happen to be reviewing two very different productions related to Palestinian life-- one a film, the other a theoretical analysis. The documentary film, Speed Sisters, opening February 2017, is by the Arab-Canadian director Amber Fares. Speed Sisters features five young and feisty Palestinian women who while living under occupation, become car racing enthusiasts--the first all-women race car driving team in the Middle East--independent, bold, and free. The women’s indulgence in cars is understandable, given the bleakness of Israeli occupation, but hard to imagine alongside what’s in Karmi’s story. The other production is the ninth book by Steven Salaita whose brilliance and insight were evident even before he was denied a university appointment by a Zionist-influenced discriminatory university dean. Salaita’s Inter/Nationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine is an exploration of shared experiences of Palestinians and Native Americans where the author lays out conceptual ground between American Indian and Indigenous studies and Palestinian studies through concepts of settler colonialism, ‘indigeneity’, and state violence. It’s a groundbreaking study into what should have been obvious decades ago
These three stories may seem at odds with one another. Yet we can see them as continually evolving meanings of what it means to be Palestinian.[ Inexhaustible Memories of Palestine: A Book Review ]
We believe that our problem is one not a violation of civil rights but a violation of human rights. Not only are we denied the right to be a citizen in the United States, we are denied the right to be a human being"
Malcolm X, Jan 5, 1965
- a poem.. a song..
- "Every Fourth Drop"
written and read by Andrea Assaf Flash
- Ya Rabbi Mustafa
praises to the Prophet, from Nazira CD, female voices
- Book review
- Rajia Hassib's
In The Language of Miracles
reviewed by BNAziz.
- Tahrir Team
- Read about Sarah Malaika in the team page.
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